Israelis, Palestinians and football
Kick out racism
The vexed question of mixed football
FIGHTING racism in football is hard everywhere. In Israel it can be costly. Since Beitar Jerusalem recruited two Muslim footballers for the first time in its 75-year history in January, the team has not won a league match. Its clubhouse has been burned down. Jewish Israeli fans in their thousands have boycotted the club, ticket sales have slumped, sponsors have edged away, and the side has dived from the upper rungs of the premier league. “Beitar is dead,” gloats a commentator, calling for the managers to quit. Only a fraction of fans still turn out for matches. When one of the Muslim players (both Chechens, as it happens) touches the ball, many boo; if he scores, hundreds walk out.
But Beitar’s ultranationalist ethos, once the rule, is now the exception. The number of Palestinians playing in Israel’s football league, says a football manager, exceeds a fifth, their share of the population. All the big clubs have fielded Arab players; Hapoel Tel Aviv is captained by one. Maccabi Haifa’s squad has five Muslims, including a Syrian citizen. Some teams are almost all-Arab, including Bnei Sakhnin, which some years ago won the State Cup, Israel’s knockout competition. Increasingly Arabs and Jews cheer for the same team from the terraces. “It’s the game of the poor, where Arabs can shatter Israel’s glass ceiling,” says a football manager.
Though some politicians are loth to intervene, state bodies are tackling the bigots. Cries of “Death to Arabs!” disappeared from Beitar’s stands after Israel’s football federation deducted points for racism. Phalanxes of riot police monitor Beitar’s terraces for chants of “Muhammad is dead”.
Even Beitar is trying to change. For the first time this year, it recruited a small number of local Palestinians for its youth-training programme. “There’s no way back,” says Moshe ben Aroush, a former Beitar defender who runs the youth squad. “We’ve no choice but to co-exist.”