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Arab-Israeli soccer players offer symbol of coexistence

With tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel reaching sad records, Israeli-Arab soccer players carry the (perhaps heavy) mission of demonstrating coexistence.
Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur scores his team's fifth goal from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League playoff match between Tottenham Hotspur and Maccabi Haifa at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London, United Kingdom, Oct. 01, 2020.

May 12 was a terrible day and night for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. Close to 400 people were detained by police following intense Jewish-Arab violence and riots that erupted across the country. Jews and Arabs were attacked by extremists on both parties.

Israeli soccer, including the Israeli national team, reflects Israeli society, especially relations between Jews and Arabs. In recent years, there has been a true change in official institutions’ treatments of expressions of racism and hatred both toward Black players and between Jews and Arabs.  

A recent case related to the Maccabi Tel Aviv team attests to this change. Last week, a team supporter was banned from games for the rest of his life after he was recorded on a television broadcast yelling racist slurs at Maccabi Haifa player Mohammad Awad.

This is an unprecedented punishment for Israeli soccer. In the letter to this fan, legal counselor of the Tel Aviv team Yael Margalit wrote that the club takes his behavior seriously, that it is offensive, inappropriate, illegal, and has no place at soccer games, or anywhere. “The club’s goal is to fight any sign of violence and racism in the stadiums, and your actions have caused and continue to cause the team great damage and stain it and its loyal fans,” he wrote. The letter notes that the supporter is banned forever from any activity at the club and will not be able to buy season tickets or regular tickets to team games or practices. In addition, Maccabi Tel Aviv plans to take legal action against him for the damage caused by his words. 

Maccabi Haifa praised the decision, saying, “This is a good and necessary decision. The fight against violence and racism is shared by all of us.”   

The chairman of the Israel Professional Football Leagues, Erez Kalfon, said, “I praise Maccabi Tel Aviv’s decision. The administration will stand alongside all clubs in actions they take against racist or violent supporters. The fight against violence is shared by the administration and all of the teams. Together we will root out violence from the soccer stadiums.”

Beitar Jerusalem, a Premier League team that has fought against the racist supporter group La Familia, noted, “We praise Maccabi Tel Aviv for the uncompromising fight against racism. Thank you to the judge for the decision today, which gives backing to all the clubs to act against rioters and racists.”

In the past, La Familia members have tried to prevent the team’s owner Moshe Hogeg from signing a Muslim player, and failed to do so. Player Ali Muhammad al-Faz, of Niger, has become one of the stars of the team, and scored several of its goals. This struggle between the team owners and its racist fans didn’t end there. La Familia tried to prevent a deal to sell half of the team’s ownership to an Emirati businessman, but the deal was canceled in the end for other reasons. 

The tension of the last few days in East Jerusalem and the clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and in the Sheikh Jarakh neighborhood showed another side to the involvement of soccer players in political events. An Israeli national team player — Moanes Dabbur — an Israeli Muslim, who plays for the Hoffenheim team in Germany, wrote a post on his Instagram page related to the events. With the background of Al-Aqsa Mosque, he quoted a Quran verse, “Don’t think that God will ignore the acts of the evil men. He will only delay their judgement until the day the gaze is frozen.”

The post was taken as an attack on Israel and as support for Palestinians who rioted at mosques and clashed with police. Dabbur was criticized from all sides, many fans and league players protested the post and Dabbur himself, and members of Knesset called on the chairman of the soccer federation to oust him from the national team. Shortly after, another Muslim national team player, Biram Kiyal, posted a photo of the mosque and quoted Mahmoud Darwish’s “On This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living.”

The federation did not oust Dabbur or Kiyal, but condemned their posts, saying, “The soccer federation expects all athletes, especially national team players, to make sure to express themselves in a way that contributes to unity, reconciliation and calm. Players are leading figures and role models. They must recognize their influence on the discourse and be well aware of the results of posts they initiate that can deepen rifts and polarization.” 

This is not the first time that soccer players from the Arab community have encountered this duality. In their public statements they are stuck between the two sides: The Jewish public supports them and embraces them, and in view of their talent and achievement as stars of the national team, they have become national symbols — a status that has great professional and financial significance for them and exposure to international teams. On the other hand, for the Arab public they are even more important and influential symbols. Their reputation and exposure are critical, and the two sides expect a certain type of behavior from them.

Thus, among the Jewish public, some think that an Arab player cannot be a captain of the national team because he refuses to sing the national anthem. Former player Eyal Berkowitz demanded that Circassian player Bibras Natkho be fired from this role because he didn’t sing the anthem. 

The Jewish public, as seen from the federation’s response, expect Arab players in Israel to be neutral, not to react to sensitive issues and political events — and if they act otherwise, they can expect an attack that would threaten their careers. Among the Arab public, it is the exact opposite. Someone who has such significant status among the Jewish public is expected to speak out on such issues and raise awareness of them. Arab citizens cast their eyes to their opinion leaders, and expect Arab players to serve their people. 

Arab soccer players in Israel are considered a sign of coexistence, and entire campaigns of hope for Israeli unity and against racism are placed on their shoulders. Perhaps this is too heavy a weight to put on them. 

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