For Israeli Arabs and Jews, Soccer Puts Identity Politics In Play


Tel Aviv — At World Cup time, soccer fever is hailed as a cosmopolitan common denominator.

In Israel, whose national team can’t find its way out of a 40-year drought in reaching the World Cup, Jewish and Arab fans are united in their orphanhood. No Palestinian team has ever made it to the big dance, and Arab teams have only reached the round of 16 twice.

And so, fans here take part in the quadrennial celebration through rooting by proxy.

That culture of fandom offers a prism into both cultural tensions and overlaps in the Jewish state and its one-fifth Arab minority.

Both Arab and Jewish children know about the “Mondial” (French for the World Cup) and its perennial powerhouses Brazil and Argentina from preschool. The month-long celebration is a public affair, with the Tel Aviv beach lined with giant TV screens outside cafés and the skylines of Arab towns filled with the flags of World Cup favorites.

There seems to be a consensus about the elite teams like Brazil and Argentina. But Jews and Arabs part ways when it comes to countries with controversial political histories.

“We like to think we’re European,” said Eyal Ofer, the manager of the Aggadir hamburger restaurant chain, as groups of fans at tables on Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall wolfed down burgers while keeping their eyes trained on projection screens showing Brazil play Chile in high definition.

Ofer was referring to the inflated expectations for Israel’s national team to carve out a respectable place alongside the European powerhouses it competes against in the World Cup qualifying rounds. When asked about how Israel would fare in the tournament this year (France and Switzerland won Israel’s qualifying group), he shrugged.

“We’re not good at soccer. We like to think we’re good, but we’re not,” he said. “Usually they like to blame the coaches. It’s never the players,” he added sarcastically.

The grouping of Israel, which made its only World Cup appearance in 1970, with Europe instead of Asia, reflects the Jewish state’s historic isolation in the Middle East. The grouping suits Israel’s Arab neighbors, who would prefer not to have relations with the Jewish state, while also appealing to the Western focus of the Israeli mainstream.

A Haaretz opinion piece on the eve of the competition suggested that Israel’s failure to qualify for the 2010 competition might have been a blessing in disguise after the fatal intercept of a Gaza-bound flotilla stirred up protests around the world, including South Africa.

Aggadir is decorated with the requisite string of paper flags of World Cup powerhouses: Brazil, Argentina, Spain, England, Italy, Germany and France. Next to the restaurant is a hummusiya, which is also packed with fans watching their own screen.

It is a critical mass of soccer-dom, and the pedestrian mall seems to echo with a cacophony of the vuvuzela horn, high-pitched whistles and the play-by-play of the sports announcer.

There is a security guard, a remnant of the second intifada of the last decade “who is more for the customers,” said Ofer. Aggadir’s outside section is partitioned off by potted shrubs and flowers.

“I got rid of those,” the manager added, pointing to the larger metal barriers that once were used to fend off potential suicide bombers.

Waiting for a friend to get an order of takeout hamburgers, Yaniv Klein watched the big screen while wearing a green T-shirt, though the coordination with Brazil’s national color was only by chance. Klein said he favored the Netherlands because he rooted for Amsterdam soccer club Ajax. “Beyond that,” Klein said, “the Dutch are friendly to the Jews.”

When asked whether he had watched the Sweet 16 match in which Germany routed England, 3-1, Klein groaned in the affirmative. “I was really disappointed. It was a terrible game.”

The English team is popular among Israelis because its Premier League is broadcast throughout the world. But in a city whose main streets are named for a British general (Allenby) and a monarch (King George V), the imprint is still strong. “It’s because of the colonials,” Klein said, referring to the 30-year British Mandate government.

The view of that game was decidedly different among Arab fans about a mile away at the Taralina, an all-male café in Jaffa where fans watched Argentina and Mexico amid cherry-laced nargila smoke and glasses of Turkish coffee. Arab fans, explained Khalil Garboa, were overwhelmingly rooting for Germany.

“Maybe it’s a protest. The Jews don’t like Germany so Arabs like the opposite,” the 44-year-old carpenter smiled. “I was with a client during the second half to take measurements. He said that he turned off the game because it made him feel bad.”

In Arab towns and cities across Israel, houses are commonly decorated with the flags of the World Cup powerhouses. It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t exist just a few miles away across the Green Line among Palestinian brethren on the West Bank.

Garboa said the display is part of the World Cup “festivities,” but he also said he agreed with an Israeli press report that suggested the practice reflects the nationalist vacuum among Israeli Arabs.

“We face a tougher problem than the Palestinians in the territories,” Garboa explained between puffs from his water pipe. “They hate us on both sides. Here, we are hated because we are Arabs, and when I go to an Arab country they see my Israeli identification.”

In Nazareth, on the eve of the final match of the group stage, Algeria’s green-and-white crescent flag was displayed along the other World Cup favorites in support of the sole Arab representative against the U.S.

“People who are minorities support other minorities,” said Ahmed Sarsour, at a café in Qufr Qassem that pulls in a crowd of 70 soccer fans who watch on a hill of grass that looks west to the Tel Aviv skyline.

But it would be a mistake to portray World Cup fandom in solely political terms. At the Jaffa café, two Jewish lawyers reading the Haaretz newspaper in the middle of the match said they’ve been soccer regulars for years.

At cafés and households across Israel, Arabs are watching the broadcast of Hebrew channels because it’s free, as opposed to the pay-per-view Arabic-language channel Al Jazeera. Indeed, Arab Israelis said they are more comfortable listening to Hebrew-language play-by-play on Israeli television rather than announcers from far-flung Arab countries who speak in unfamiliar dialects.

And who would Israeli Arabs root if, by a miracle, Israel would make a return to World Cup glory? Flying the Israeli flag would be too politically loaded, said, Sarsour, but Arab fans consider the Arab players on the national team as their own.

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