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Dr. Tamir Sorek has participated in mass events in Sakhnin twice in recent months. The first time was at the end of March, when the annual Land Day parade and rally took place. The second was on a Friday less than two weeks ago, when there were spontaneous celebrations in honor of Bnei Sakhnin, the local soccer team that has been promoted to the premier league.

At both events there were thousands of participants, including members of the municipal leadership and many politicians, and at both, there was not only great enthusiasm among the participants, but local pride as well.

But Dr. Sorek could easily observe several outstanding differences between the two events. The Palestinian flags that flooded Sakhnin on Land Day disappeared completely at the soccer team celebrations. The nationalist slogans called out in Arabic on Land Day made way for cries of encouragement and victory songs in Hebrew. The tension between the demonstrators and the police, which always characterizes Land Day, made way for police officers out of uniform, who came to congratulate the residents of Sakhnin and were welcomed with open affection. And there were also Jews there - like the coach of Bnei Sakhnin, Momi Zafran and three of its players - who were carried aloft on the shoulders of the celebrants.

Sorek believes that all these phenomena have a clear common denominator - an attempt to erase from the soccer celebrations any sign of Arab or Palestinian nationalism. As distinguished from the events of Land Day, these celebrations were an Israeli event rather than an Arab or Palestinian one. Sorek was not surprised. In recent years he has attended dozens and maybe hundreds of soccer matches in which Arab teams participated, interviewed dozens of players, coaches, fans and managers of Arab teams, spoken about soccer with Arab politicians, perused the sports sections of the Arab press in Israel, and studied the history of Palestinian soccer, prior to and after 1948.

Taibe was an exception

He did all these things under the tutelage of Prof. Baruch Kimmerling and Dr. Danny Rabinowitz, when he was writing his doctoral dissertation in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His doctorate, which he completed a little over two years ago, deals with the social and political roles of Arab soccer in Israel. The central thesis corresponds to what Sorek observed at the celebrations in Sakhnin and what took place a week earlier in Nazareth, when they celebrated the promotion to the premier league of the Ahi Nazareth team.

Sorek claims that most of the Arabs in Israel are very interested in soccer; they consider it one of the few arenas (and maybe the only one) that offers them integration into Israeli society and therefore reject any attempt to lend the confrontation on the playing field any element of Arab-Palestinian nationalism. For them soccer "is not an expression of nationalism, but a substitute for nationalism."

Sorek began his dissertation in 1997, the year when Hapoel Taibe played in the first league (before it was called the premier league). The appearances of Taibe, the first Arab team that was promoted to the top league, had a strong Palestinian-nationalist flavor, partly thanks to the presence at all its matches of Arab MK Dr. Ahmed Tibi and then mayor of Taibe, the late Rafik Haj-Yihye.

"I was sure I would discover that the arena of Arab soccer is full of nationalist tensions and conflicts," says Sorek. "To my surprise, I discovered that Taibe was a blatant exception in this arena."

Now, the promotion to the top soccer league of two Arab teams, Maccabi Ahi Nazareth and Ihud Bnei Sakhnin, is about to revolutionize the social and political face of Israeli soccer, as well as put Sorek's thesis to the test. The fact that two out of the 12 teams in the premier league will be Arab will be a precise reflection of the percentage of Arabs in Israel's population, and will turn the premier league, in effect, into a binational contest.

The challenge it presents to Israeli society will be unprecedented. Every week there will be matches in a Jewish city and an Arab city, between a Jewish team with a large group of fans, and an Arab team, which is seen as a "representative of the Arab sector." Coexistence will be tested anew every week. Now, about two and a half months before the start of the soccer season, it is still difficult to estimate how Jewish and Arab soccer fans will deal with this new situation.

Cautiously and with reservations, Dr. Sorek estimates that the fragile coexistence between Jews and Arabs will be strengthened by this test. His careful optimism stems from his assessment that the Arab soccer community (fans, players, managers and local politicians) doesn't intend to change its strategy and its attitude towards soccer. Sorek thinks that this community sees soccer as the only arena for social activity in Israel in which the Jewish majority is willing to judge the Arab minority only according to its abilities and achievements, rather than according to its ethnic and national affinity. For this reason, Sorek believes, the Arab side will refuse to turn soccer, even in the premier league, into another arena for national conflict.

For just that reason, Sorek believes that both sides have to beware of false illusions. The feeling of integration into Israeli society that soccer gives Israeli Arabs is to a large extent an illusion. "If the Arab fan believes that integration in soccer will lead to true integration into Israeli society," says Sorek, "he is likely to be disappointed. One out of every six groups in the league will be Arab, but the Housing and Construction Ministry development budgets for the Arab sector will continue to be 2.5 percent."

He wants to warn the Jewish side of the equation to beware of the feeling that "soccer will do the work for us." The fact that there are two Arab teams in the premier league doesn't exempt Jewish society from working to eliminate discrimination and deprivation in other areas of life. Sorek believes that the atmosphere on the playing fields where the Arab groups will be playing "will actually be good," but he doesn't believe that it will influence other areas of life.

He also knows that not always and not on every field will there be a positive atmosphere. "It's clear that there will also be cries of `Death to the Arabs,'" he says. "But if every team whose fans shout `Death to the Arabs' receives the punishment of playing radius matches [not on their own home field] without spectators, the phenomenon will disappear."

In 1999, during the prime ministerial election campaign between Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, there were two soccer matches at the Ramat Gan stadium, one after the other. In the earlier match, the Toto Cup for teams in the second league, the competitors were Bnei Sakhnin and Hakoah Ramat Gan. In the main match, the Toto Cup for teams in the senior league, Beitar Jerusalem was playing Maccabi Tel Aviv. The sports columns published a large number of pessimistic assessments on the eve of the matches, predicting what was liable to happen in the stands during the encounter between Sakhnin fans and Beitar Jerusalem fans. What actually happened was different.

The beginning actually did correspond to the forecasts. A few minutes after the beginning of Sakhnin's match, Beitar fans had already broken out in cries of "Death to the Arabs." Sakhnin fans, who are used to it, kept quiet and demonstrated indifference. A lone fan who responded with "Death to the Jews" was silenced by his friends. Beitar fans, who were apparently searching for a different provocation, started to shout in chorus "Hurray, Bibi" [Benjamin Netanyahu], as was common at election rallies during that period. "Here something surprising happened," says Sorek. "The Sakhnin fans didn't keep quiet, but got up and started to shout `Hurray, Barak.' In my opinion, with this cry the Sakhnin fans made it clear to the Beitar fans that they wouldn't succeed in pushing them into a nationalist corner. This was an internal Israeli debate, not a nationalist conflict."

To prove his claim, he can produce many additional examples. One of them is connected to the Palestinian team that was organized after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Several years ago, after it won a respectable third place in the championship of the Arab nations, the team was invited to a friendly match in Sakhnin. "On the field in Sakhnin, to which about 2,000 fans come on an ordinary Shabbat, and for important matches even 4,000, no more than 300 spectators attended the match with the Palestinian team," says Sorek.

"In my opinion, the residents of Sakhnin sent a clear message that day: We will demonstrate Palestinian nationalism in other places, not on the soccer field."

"Arab fans in Israel haven't raised Palestinian flags in the bleachers, and that is also a fact whose importance shouldn't be downplayed, in my opinion," says Sorek. "In other countries where there are national minorities, the fans often raise flags. In Spain, the fans of Atletico Bilbao raise Basque flags at every match. Fans of Wahadat in Jordan bring Palestinian flags to the matches. Here it doesn't happen."

Sorek also examined the records of the disciplinary court of the Israel Football Association, and found that in most of the matches that were stopped because of rowdiness among the spectators there were two Arab teams playing, rather than an Arab team playing a Jewish team, as is generally believed.

Arab soccer in Israel, which began with the establishment of branches of Hapoel by the Histadrut labor federation in the 1960s, began to gain momentum in the `80s, when excellent players such as Rifat Turk of Hapoel Tel Aviv and Zahi Armali of Maccabi Haifa became cultural heroes among the Arab population. It attained additional momentum during the `90s, thanks to the fact that young men who joined the municipal leadership understood its importance, and began to invest large sums of money in it. No fewer than 42 percent of the teams now registered in the Football Association, with its five leagues, are Arab.

"The other factor that influenced the development of Arab soccer in the 1990s was the first intifada, which intensified questions of identity for Arabs in Israel," says Sorek. "Parallel to the strengthening of Palestinian awareness, the Arab public was searching for areas of activity where their Israeli identity could be enhanced, without giving up their Arab identity." Soccer met this need, and became what Sorek calls in sociological jargon "an enclave of integration."

And in fact, Arab players play on Jewish teams, and even on the Israeli national team, Jewish players and coaches join Arab teams and the matches are held without any evidence of discrimination.

Not all elements of Arab society accept the prevailing attitude towards soccer. The Islamic Movement, for example, rejects the participation of Arab teams in the Israeli league, and has a separate Islamic league. However, even the Islamic Movement avoids conducting an open struggle against participation in the Israeli league. The Arab press, for the most part, also takes a different, more "nationalist" approach. Some of the Arab sports commentators, for example, oppose the integration of Jewish players on Arab teams claiming that they cause "a loss of the Arab character of the teams."

"This approach, which is dominant in the press, doesn't filter down to the fans, the players and the team managers," says Sorek. "Perhaps because their main source of information about Israeli soccer is the sports sections of Yedioth and Ma'ariv." Sorek thinks that even this phenomenon testifies to their desire to turn soccer into an arena of integration.