A Middle East Update: Racism in Israeli Football

by Avraham Oz
distributed by email on
6 April 2005

Following some of my updates, some friends send me messages reminding me the worrying phenomena of growing anti-semitism in today's world. It is worrying indeed, even beyond the erroneous identification made between anti-Israeli policies, or even anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism. Imagine a crowd somewhere in a European football stadium, shouting anti-semitic slogans, waving flags of hatred, and cursing a Jewish player, or an Israeli team. Imagine the waves of protest, from Jewish circles over the world and official protest from Israel.

Well, in my country, in my town, last night, such scenes of hatred were seen big time: scenes which would not have put to shame the most radical assemblies of Neo-Nazis and other racist groups. Except that the targeted group was not Jewish, but Arab. The fans of Israeli football club Betar Jerusalem are known for their lively conduct during games and around them. Scenes of violence frequently occur when they have grievances against the score of their team every day of the year. now imagine what happens when a league game against one of the two Arab clubs – Sakhnin and Nazareth – in the Israeli Premier League take place.

Last week the national team had two important games here in Israel against two of its international rivals at group 4 of the world cup 2006 qualifying games: Ireland and France. Both teams were considered to have advantage over the Israeli team, and the two draws were considered a fair achievement for the Israeli team. The goal which brought the Israeli team the draw against Ireland was scored by Arab Sakhnin player Abbas Suan; against France, the other Israeli Arab player in the national team, Walid Badir, headed a late equaliser to grab a point just seven minutes from time and got Israel the coveted draw.

Last night, in Tel Aviv, in the same stadium where those two international games last week took place, at the scheduled league meeting between Betar Jerusalem and Suan's club, Sakhnin, Suan was supposed to be received by everyone as the star of the national team. The organizers, from the hosting Betar club, wasted no effort in trying to impose a sporting nature on the charged clash, with the announcer congratulating, "in the name of the tens of thousands of Betar supporters," Israeli international Abbas Suan for his equalizer against Ireland slightly more than a week ago. "Welcome him," enthused the announcer, but the applause was drowned out by a huge chorus of boos from the Betar stands. Suan may be a national team star; but in Jerusalem, he is just another Arab soccer player. The score this season between the two clubs, both currently struggling at the bottom of the league, is in favour of the Arab team. It's bad enough for a Jewish club to beat the most patriotic team that represents the eternal capital of the state; but for an Arab club to do so twice in a single season is just too much. At least 400 among the 5000 Betar supporters were shouting: "Let the town of Sakhnin be burnt down," "We hate all Arabs," and worse; to the cameras of the various Israeli TV channels, Betar fans shouted: "we'd rather lose 0:10 to Ireland rather than have an Arab score a goal in our name! He doesn't represent us!"

Some apologetics were sounded in talk shows this morning. We are asked to understand football hooliganism is a known phenomena. 400, said one Betar supporter on TV this morning, are less than 10 percent. I am not sure such arguments would have satisfied Jewish protests against anti-semitic riots elsewhere. Yet just as we are asked to regard anti-semitism as a unique form of racism, so we should pay attention to growing Israeli xenophobia and particularly to Arab-hatred against the Jewish population. It becomes a growing phenomenon not to be underestimated. Violence grows among youth; people are stabbed to death during daily raws over a parking space or the behaviour of neighbour's dogs. Yesterday a teenager who came to Israel from France two years ago was hospitalized after being battered by her classmates, boys and girls, following a raw over a cellphone. She told TV interviewer she was considering going back to France: "there is prominent anti-semitism growing there," she said, "But at least I wasn't battered like this."

The sport portfolio in the Israeli government is placed in the hands of famous Mini-Stress of Education and Culture Limor Livnat, who has recently ordered the "legacy of [assassinated Israeli Minister of Tourism] Rehav'am Zeevi," who founded his radical nationalistic party on a platform of "transfer" (in plain terms "ethnic cleansing") of the Arab population of Israel, to be part of the official school curriculum. Stand-up comedians on stage and TV in Israel are still ridiculing her enthusiastic jump -to the point of harassment – all over Israeli sportsmen who gained medals for Israel in the recent Athens Olympic games. What, would you think, did she have to say about last night's riots against Arabs? You have guessed right. Nothing. She, like all her other fellow Ministers, suddenly lost their voice. Small wonder: they must save it for crying their protest against the next anti-semitic incident somewhere in the world. In the meantime they are engaged in other activities, one of which you may read about in Haaretz report below.

For better days,

A. Oz
Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature
University of Haifa
2105 Eshkol Tower
Mount Carmel
31905 Haifa

Oz also distributed a Haaretz article with this email, and that can be found here.