Patriot games

wsc299 Right-wing politicians are trying to win votes by demanding the allegiance of non-Jewish players, Shaul Adar writes

With general elections expected next year, the Israeli political system is in turmoil. For members of the Knesset hoping to make their mark before the primaries, this is almost their last chance. Joining the attack on the democratic values of the state seems to be the best way to make an impression. In the last month there has been a deluge of law proposals designed to limit the freedom and integrity of the Supreme Court, press, human rights organisations and top non-Jewish footballers.

Knesset member Michael Ben Ari of the right-wing National Union Party has led the attack. He proposed that all members of the Israeli national team will have to sing the national anthem HaTikva and sign a declaration of loyalty to the state, its symbols, and its Jewish and democratic values. “This proposal was born in response to the large numbers of talented players from minorities and those who don’t recognise Israel as a Jewish state but take part in international competition and represent Israel,” he said. “It is unacceptable that such players won’t sing the national anthem.”

A storm broke immediately. “It is a populist proposal,” said a spokesman for the Israeli football association. “It is not the duty of the Knesset to pass laws regarding football – that is the role of UEFA and FIFA.” Leading Israeli Arab players joined in the criticism. “It is an unnecessary proposal,” said Celtic midfielder Beram Kayal. Marwan Kabha, of Maccabi Petah Tikva and the Under-21 national team said: “Arab players give their all to the national team and score crucial goals. They play their hearts out just like the Jewish players.”

As another Arab player in the domestic league commented anonymously in a website interview: “Arab and Muslim players will not sing this anthem until it changes and mentions our values. If necessary we will not play for the national team.”

For all its faults and weaknesses, Israeli football is still meritocratic. Talented players can progress to the best teams and the national side irrespective of their backgrounds. Since Rifaat Turk, an Arab from Jaffa, led the way and played for Israel in the 1976 Olympics, non-Jewish players have been a constant presence in the national squad.

Muslims and Christian Arab players have been joined by other players from various communities and sects, including Druze, Circassians and Bedouin, as well as immigrants from countries including Argentina and Nigeria. At a recent youth international against Belarus, Israel had seven Arab players. Maccabi Haifa, the leading Israeli club over the last 30 years, has often fielded more Arab and foreign players than Jewish Israelis. In many cases, scouts from the Israeli football association have unearthed Arab players in small lower league teams and launched their careers.

The issue reflects the complexities of Israeli society. Wiyam Amashe, Maccabi Haifa’s leading goal scorer, is a Druze from the Golan Heights, which previously belonged to Syria. The Druze population there is still loyal to Syria. Amashe refuses to take an Israeli passport and so cannot play for the national team. In contrast, his team-mate Sari Falah, a Druze from Galilee, is a soldier in the Israeli army.

There is also a clear undercurrent of racism and discrimination in Israeli football. Beitar Jerusalem, one of the most popular teams, cannot sign an Arab or Muslim player, for fear of a revolt among their own fans. Meanwhile, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s shambolic performance in a Europa League tie against Stoke last month was accompanied by their fans’ anti-Arab chants, including “may your village burn” and “let the Israeli army win”.

Ben Ari has received the publicity he was looking for and has been widely supported by website commenters. Even if his proposal does not pass this time, the ground has been laid for another try later. Ben Ari has proved himself as a provocateur, but as a patriot his proposal is extremely short-sighted. Israel needs its top non-Jewish players and the national team will be much poorer without them – as will Israeli society as one of the last shreds of normality disappears.

From WSC 299 January 2012