By James M. Dorsey
Israeli MP Michael Ben-Ari (Source: Getty Images)
Proposed legislation by extreme nationalist Israeli parliamentarian Michael Ben-Ari that would require members of Israeli national sport teams to sing the national anthem and recognise Israel as a Jewish state threatens to weaken the country’s soccer team and further isolate Israel internationally.
Mr. Ben-Ari, a member of the far-right National Union, who is widely seen as having inherited the mantle of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the assassinated racist leader of the Jewish Defence League, tabled his proposal as the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, returned from a three-month recess.
The proposed bill is part of a slew of nationalist legislation on the Knesset’s agenda that includes a draft law tabled by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) Party that would make a commitment to Israel and its Jewish character a condition for citizenship.
An estimated 20 per cent of Israelis are Palestinians who are largely committed to the existence of the state, but feel that it discriminates against non-Jews and that emphasizing its Jewish character is intended to exclude them. Mr. Ben-Ari’s proposal as well as other draft legislation is certain to reaffirm that sense.
Mr. Ben-Ari’s proposal is in line with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state as part of any Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
The demand, rooted in an Israeli desire to impose recognition of the Jews’ historic right to settle Palestine and block recognition of Palestinian rights to return to lands within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, goes far beyond earlier Israeli demands for recognition of Israel as a state. That recognition by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestine Authority formed the basis for the last two decades of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Mr. Ben-Ari’s proposal, which has sparked intense debate in Israel, would contrast starkly with accepted practice in soccer powerhouses such as Germany and France. Immigrant and foreign players in the French and German national teams often refrain from singing their team’s national anthem. German national team coach Joachim has Low noted that the players identify with Germany as much as they do with their heritage.
If adopted Mr. Ben-Ari’s law would mean that the three Israeli Palestinian members of the 21-man national soccer team – Beram Kayal, Taleb Twaitha and Ali Ottman – would withdraw.
In a stinging commentary in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz entitled ‘Sport and Racism / Hatikva ueber alles?’ – a word play on the Israel national anthem and the German anthem at the time of the Nazis -- prominent Israeli sports writer Uzi Dann warned that Mr. Ben-Ari’s proposal “is as surreal as it is dangerous. The second part of Ben-Ari's proposal - that Israeli Arabs players be forced to sign an oath of allegiance - is the epitome of fascism.”
Mr. Dann noted that “to demand that Beram Kayal sing ‘The Land of Zion and Jerusalem’ is ridiculous; to insist that Taleb Twatiha joins in when his teammates sing about the yearning of the Jewish spirit is a cheek; and to force Ali Ottman to mumble something about being a free nation in our land is an own goal.”
The journalist went on to say that “once, we could be sure that such surreal proposals were thrown onto the parliamentary garbage heap. Today, however, anything is possible. If Ben-Ari's bill becomes law, Israel, which once took pride in the separation of sports and politics, will be the only country on earth with such a discriminatory and racist law. And soccer is one of the areas in which the authorities have made a genuine effort to inculcate equality among all Israeli citizens.”
If adopted, Israel would likely be sanctioned by world soccer body FIFA and European soccer body UEFA – Israel plays since 1994 in European competitions after it was booted out of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) several years earlier because Middle Eastern teams refused to play against it – and would likely face legal challenges in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
“That's all we need. But the point here … is that the national team needs its Israeli Arab players more than they need the national team. Israel depends on them and relies on them and is a far worse team without them. Not only is Ben-Ari a racist, he's damaging the national team,” Mr. Dann said.
The importance of Palestinian players was driven home to Israelis in 2005 when Abbas Suan, a devout Muslim who refused to sing the Hatikva before a game, achieved for a brief moment what politicians in more than a half-century had not: he united Israeli Jews and Arabs by securing with a last minute equalizer against Ireland Israel’s first chance in 35 years to qualify for a world cup. The game earned him the nickname The Equalizer and made him an Israeli hero; his cheery face and toothy smile featured in ads for the state lottery.
That sense of unity was short-lived. When Suan set foot on the pitch in Israel a week later as captain of Bnei Sakhnin, an Israeli Arab team, Jewish fans of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most nationalistic club, booed him every time he touched the ball. “Suan, You Don’t Represent US,” blared a giant banner in the stadium. Fans shouted, “We hate all Arabs.”
Mr. Suan, an advocate of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, an independent Palestinian state and a solution for Palestinian demands to recover land and homes lost when Israel was founded, took the insults in his stride. “I ignore them,” he insisted. “They’re not worth my attention. They portray me as an Arab in a Jewish country. They try to put me in one group, but I represent both."
Mr. Suan’s Beit Sakhnin is a story in itself. So is that of Beitar Jerusalem. Together their stories chart the fault line between Israelis and Palestinians. Beit Sakhnin is a model of coexistence: a majority of Israeli Arabs with some Jews and foreigners.
The club, the first Israel-Arab team to become an Israeli champion, and Mr. Suan did wonders for Arab pride and self-confidence. They also spotlighted the divisions in Israeli and Arab society. "Our problem is that the Arabs say we are traitors and Israelis think we are Arabs," said Palestinian building contractor Mazen Ghaneim and former Bnei Sakhnin chairman.
Bnei Sakhnin’s success has nonetheless enabled it to build bridges where heads of state and diplomats have failed. It won the club funding from oil-rich Qatar to build its own stadium, the Arab world’s only direct investment in Israel, and prompted Arabs from countries formally at war with the Jewish state to defy bans on travel to Israel to attend the team’s matches.
Beitar Jerusalem’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. It’s mostly Sephardic fans of Middle Eastern and North African origin revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
Supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revanchist Zionist youth movement. Its founding players actively resisted the pre-state British mandate authorities. Its fans shocked Israelis when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Beitar’s war reaches a feverish pitch when the team plays Bnei Sakhnin. Fans chant racist, anti-Arab songs and denounce the Prophet Mohammed. In response, Beit Sakhnin’s predominantly Palestinian fans sing Islamic and anti-Israeli chants. The outbursts have prompted the Israeli Football Association to become the Middle East’s only governing soccer body to launch a campaign against racism and discrimination and made Israel the only nation in the region to have charged fans with shouting racist remarks.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.