By Hisham El Koustaf
By Hisham El Koustaf
Morocco World News
Orange County, California, December 4, 2012
In 2004, Bnei Sakhnin F.C., a small Israeli-Arab soccer club, did the improbable by winning the Israeli State Cup. As a result of its historic win, the team became the first Arab team to play in Europe’s prestigious UEFA Cup, eventually losing in the second round to English powerhouse, Newcastle United. Bnei Sakhnin’s success on the pitch brought immediate and unprecedented support, including a lucrative shirt sponsorship deal, a cash injection by a wealthy Israeli businessman and a completely rebuilt stadium courtesy of the Emir of Qatar. The team also became the subject of popular documentary films including the critically acclaimed 2010 film “After The Cup: Sons of Sakhnin United”.
For people across the globe, Bnei Sakhnin provided hope for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence as the team was a truly integrated soccer club with Jewish and Muslim players, a Jewish coach and an Arab manager. In Israel, opportunistic politicians and naïve journalists were quick to herald the team’s success as an example of Israeli democracy and equal opportunity for all. Even Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs capitalized on the team’s success. In a section labeled “Inclusion of the Arab Minority”, the Ministry lists Bnei Sakhnin’s win among the historic firsts for Arab-Israelis.
Regrettably, Bnei Sakhnin’s Cinderella story is overshadowed by an ugly reality that is truly reflective of Israeli society. Throughout the Israeli premier league, Arab players are routinely subjected to racist taunts and death threats, especially when facing the ultra-right wing team, Beitar Jerusalem. Beitar, which according to the LA Times is owned by Americans Dan Adler and Adam Levine, boasts fans that are notorious for their long history of racist behavior and violence directed at Arabs. In a recent league match against Hapoel, the only Israeli team with an Arab captain, a 19-year-old member of Beitar’s La Familia hooligan gang shouted, “We hate Arabs and Muslims” and added, “If any Arab played for Beitar, we’d burn their ass and burn the club. They’re our enemy.” Shockingly, Israeli citizens are not alone in spewing vitriol against Arab players. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish minster of foreign affairs (the third most powerful position after prime minister and minister of defense) once called for Bnei Sakhnin’s expulsion from the Israeli league.
In addition to the racism they face at the club level, Arab players are also not as appreciated or valued when playing with the Israeli national team. According to a March 2012 article in Tablemag.com, Salim Tuama, an Israeli-Arab soccer star who has also played for the Israeli national team, has endured harsh racist chants such as, “What is Salim doing here, I don’t know.….Tuama, this is the Land of Israel. Tuama, this is the state of the Jews. I hate you Salim Tuama. I hate all the Arabs.” Abbas Suan, considered by many as one of the best Arab-Israeli players, became a national hero for scoring the game-tying goal of a World Cup qualifying match against Ireland. Four days later, another Israeli Arab, Walid Badir, scored the tying goal in the 83rd minute in a 1-1 draw with France. As the NY Times reported, the following week, Suan was welcomed to a league match against Beitar Jerusalem with profanity and a large sign: “Abbas Suan – you do not represent us.”
Israel’s blunt racism is not limited to Arab players. As reported in a November 2012 article in 972mag.com, African players are routinely subjected to the chanting of monkey noises and the throwing of bananas. As Nigerian-born Toto Tamuz recently told an Israeli newspaper, “I’ve never seen such racism in my whole life. … [two other black Hapoel players] and I were the last ones on the field. When we came out of the tunnel they started throwing bananas at us. We heard curses and racist chants. … [During the game] I heard their regular song, ‘Give Toto a banana,’ and a lot of other things I’m embarrassed to mention.” Cameroon’s Eric Djemba Djemba, a former midfielder at Manchester United, told the same newspaper, “When they call you ‘kushi’ [‘nigger’] … and throw bananas at you, it’s not exactly pleasant. I like this country and I’m happy to be here, but this is impossible. I didn’t know things like this happened in Israel.”
Given Israel’s inability or unwillingness to combat racism towards and violence against Arab players and fans, it is disheartening to learn that the Union of European Football Associations “UEFA”, under the leadership of Michel Platini, has awarded Israel the privilege of hosting the Under 21 European Championships. UEFA’s decision is both alarming and hypocritical when one considers the organization’s two main social responsibility campaigns: Anti-racism and Respect. A quick perusal of UEFA’s web site and one will be overwhelmed by the amount of material on the organization’s stand against racism and its steady support for campaigns attempting to banish this evil from football and society. For instance, UEFA forged a close partnership with the Football Against Racism in Europe Network (FARE) in order to combat intolerance and discrimination across the continent. At recent UEFA club competition matches, children wearing Unite Against Racism T-shirts accompanied teams onto the pitch and team captains wore Unite Against Racism armbands.
UEFA’s Respect campaign is another social responsibility initiative designed to, among other things, raise awareness and demonstrate UEFA’s continuous commitment to combat any form of discrimination. UEFA also implements the Respect Diversity program with FARE and its associated organization Never Again (Ironically, for Jews who remember the racist European pogroms and the Holocaust, the words “Never Again” are especially meaningful).
Perhaps I am naïve, but how could UEFA claim that it is helping to banish the evil of racism from soccer and society when it has just rewarded a country whose fundamental premise is based on racism against and displacement of an indigenous peoples? How could UEFA team up with Never Again yet reward Israeli racism against Arab and African players that happens again, and again, and again? How could UEFA use children as ambassadors of Unite Against Racism when Israel continues to bombard densely populated Palestinian civilian areas, including a soccer field in Gaza, and murder thousands of Palestinian children in the process? How could EUFA endorse the concept of “Right to Play” when Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, with the hundreds of humiliating checkpoints, renders this right virtually impossible for Palestinians (see documentary Goal Dreams).
Speaking at UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, Michel Platini said: “As the governing body of European football, UEFA has the responsibility to protect the game and its supporters.” In rewarding Israel the honor of organizing the UEFA U21 championship, Platini endorsed illegal occupation, racism, violence and bigotry.
Hisham Elkoustaf is an attorney with over a decade of experience at the intersection of law, policy and international development. Hisham earned his B.A. in Political Science, Cum Laude, from Columbia University. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University. He earned his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is a member of Morocco World News’ editorial team.