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The Ball is Kicked and Fans Are Too: Racism a Problem in Israeli Soccer

January 23, 2004
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Chanting “Death to the Arabs,” hundreds of young Jewish soccer fans race up a dusty side street to catch a bus carrying fans of the Arab team that had just beat theirs in a tense game.

The supporters jeer even after the bus pulls away. Moments earlier, an Arab fan had been hit in the head with a rock, bloodying his forehead.

Welcome to professional soccer in Israel, where racism and violence have become part of the country’s most popular sport.

Before Monday’s match, the home team, Bnei Yehuda of Tel Aviv’s working-class Hatikva neighborhood, was awarded a plaque for being Israel’s most tolerant and sportsmanlike team by the New Israel Fund, which has been tracking soccer fan behavior in a new racism index.

“Today they received a prize, but then because they lose a game this happens,” said Nur Ghentos, manager of the victorious Arab team, Bnei Sakhnin, as he watched medics bandage the head of the fan hit by a rock. “It looks like when you are winning you can be tolerant, but when you lose this is the result. This is the story of soccer in Israel.”

Before this season, Bnei Yehuda fans had a reputation for being rowdy and racist.

The team had been leading Israel’s top league until Monday’s loss — and for some Jewish fans, losing to an Arab team is the ultimate insult.

Immediately after the game, fans for the most part were restrained, even applauding briefly for the rival team. New Israel Fund officials noted that the problems began, as they often do, outside the stadium.

Soccer hooliganism in Israel has not reached European levels, but it is very much part of the culture of the game here — something civil society organizations and team officials are trying to change.

Beginning last season, the New Israel Fund racism index has been giving supporters of each team a weekly grade. Volunteers are planted as monitors in the crowds and record the number of racist songs, slogans and incidents they observe.

The results, ranking the most and least tolerant teams, are published weekly in the media and have caused a stir among soccer fans.

Overall, racial incidents are down at soccer matches this season, but ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence exacerbates soccer violence, said Yair Galily, a sports sociologist and head of mass media and sports studies at the Zinman College of Israel’s Wingate Institute.

Soccer “is a very interesting and authentic reflection of society. We have a violent society relative to other places in world, and we can see it in the soccer violence,” Galily said. “Because it comes out in the context of soccer it is legitimized, as if it’s OK to get these things out as a catharsis.”

The tolerance lacking in the stands can be found on the field, however, where Jews and Arabs often play on the same team.

“On the soccer field is one of the only jobs where you see Arabs and Jews working together,” said Eliezer Yaari, executive director of the New Israel Fund in Israel, an organization that promotes equality, democracy and social justice.

Lior Asulin, a Jewish player, scored the winning goal for the Arab team, Bnei Sakhnin. He was cheered and hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders as fans roared and whooped.

Racism in Israeli soccer stems mostly from Jewish fans who feel they can shout slogans such as “Death to the Arabs” and “Go to Palestine” without fear of repercussion, experts say.

The same cannot be said for their Arab counterparts. Jews playing on Arab teams say they feel at home on their teams.

The Arab fans “give us lots of respect; there is no racism. They treat us well and we enjoy every minute,” Asulin said, smiling as he was slapped on the back after the game by a steady stream of fans.

In the late 1970s, the first Arab players were included on Jewish teams of the top league.

This season, for the first time, two Arab teams, Bnei Sakhnin and Maccabi Ahi Nazareth, performed well enough to be included in the premier league.

In a sign of soccer’s potential to become a beacon for coexistence, fans of the Nazareth team cheered when Israel’s star player, Chaim Revivo, appeared on the field to play for the Jewish team of Ashdod. The Ashdod fans applauded the Nazareth fans in return.

Last year, a team from the Arab town of Kafr Kana was invited to play a match in Jordan but were told by the Jordanians that they would have to leave their Jewish players behind. The Kafr Kana management refused to go without the Jewish players.

Sponsors also may shy away from teams with a reputation for racism.

The cellular phone company Cellcom dropped its sponsorship of Beitar Jerusalem, which is considered to have the most racist fans in the country.

The fans are known to have shouted “Death to the Arabs” for the duration of entire games, and the team is the only one in the premier league that never has hired an Arab player.

Team officials denied any link between Cellcom’s decision to drop its sponsorship and fan behavior.

It was revealed that at Beitar Jerusalem games, song sheets have been passed out with racist lyrics put to the tune of a popular song. The song was directed at one of Israel’s top Arab players, Salim Toameh, who plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv.

“This is the Land of Israel, Toameh. This is the Jewish state. I hate you Salim Toameh, I hate all the Arabs,” the fans sang.

The song now is commonly heard at games across the country and is directed at Arab players, whether or not Toameh is playing.

According to the New Israel Fund racism index, Beitar Jerusalem fans ranked as the most racist.

Beitar Jerusalem spokesman Lior Mai took issue with the index, saying it provoked fans to want to win first place — even as first-place racists.

Racism on the soccer field is not limited to the Arab-Jewish arena. Black players — both Ethiopian Jews and foreign players from Africa — have been taunted with shouts of “Dirty black” and “Go back to the jungle.”

Baruch Dago, a Jewish Ethiopian player for Maccabi Tel Aviv, reportedly is considering leaving the team because he is so disheartened by racist slurs hurled at him by his own team’s fans.

Anti-black sentiment is especially rife in European soccer, and public awareness campaigns are trying to help fight it.

Anti-Semitic epithets sometimes are shouted at players of British and Dutch teams considered “Jewish teams” because they either are owned by Jews or traditionally have been supported by Jewish fans.

In the dilapidated streets of the Hatikva neighborhood, Bnei Yehuda is king.

One teenage supporter, catching his breath after running after the bus of Bnei Sakhnin fans, tried to downplay the racism among his fellow fans.

“In the Hatikva neighborhood, we have only one thing to be proud of: Bnei Yehuda. It’s not a personal thing between Jews and Arabs,” said Ben Ezra, 17.

But his friend, Lior Mizrani, also 17, said racial epithets are part of general tensions.

“We do say these things out of hatred,” he said. “It comes from all the terror attacks and shootings and it ends up here, on the soccer field.”

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