Soccer flare
A flare thrown onto the pitch during league play between Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv. Photo by Nir Keidar
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Israeli soccer saw an increase in violence and racism this season, but efforts to fight these phenomena are also on the rise, according to the latest report by the New Israel Fund.

The organization, which advocates religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel, reported a 47 percent leap in racist incitement and a 24 percent rise in acts of violence - ending a three-year decline in such incidents.

The findings are particularly worrying considering that soccer clubs across the country increased educational and awareness activity about racism and violence by 175 percent since 2008. However, the negative incidents this year don't necessarily mean that racist incitement is the future of soccer.

"There was a rise this year, but the decline in previous years suggests this was an episode and not indicative of a long-term trend," said Yair Galili, a sports sociologist at the Wingate Institute. "The press tends to emphasize cases of violence and racism, but in general there is a decline in racism."

Galili said the prominence of successful Arabs on Jewish teams - like Maharan Lala, a Druze player for Hapoel Tel Aviv - is contributing to an improved environment.

"Don't forget that this season there were more teams and another Arab team," he said. "In the end, sports not only reflects processes, but also presages them."

Good job, Ashdod

Indeed, the report found that despite the rise in racist and violent incidents, the number of fans involved in such acts is fairly small - and many fans are demonstrating increasing awareness of the repercussions of racist behavior. There was a 32 percent increase in the number of condemnations issued by fans protesting insults about dark-skinned players in stands across the country.

In addition, teams, managers and players are increasingly taking the initiative to improve the atmosphere in the stands and engaging in educational activities. There were eight public events under the auspices of the New Israel Fund program, in conjunction with team administrations, players and fan clubs to raise awareness and promote sportsmanlike behavior.

F.C. Ashdod is the most sportsmanlike club, the report found. Its fans were not involved in any negative incidents this season, and management is highly engaged in creating a positive atmosphere, providing prominent signs and guidelines for fans.

At the other end of the scale, Beitar Jerusalem ranked lowest. Observers reported that in every game at least some fans yelled racist slurs. Not far ahead of Beitar is Bnei Sakhnin, whose fans were involved in three major violent incidents this year.

Maccabi Tel Aviv was on a par with Sakhnin, as some fans made racist calls during 27 matches this season.

Fans of Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv were responsible for a combined 87 percent of the 91 recorded incidents of racial incitement this season. Fans of Hapoel Be'er Sheva, Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem accounted for 75 percent of the 32 violent incidents this season, recorded through last weekend. These incidents included premeditated attacks, stone throwing and mass fights.

The "Kick Racism and Violence Out of Israeli Football" campaign, which the New Israel Fund launched in 2003 and operates in partnership with the Israel Football Association, relies on dozens of observers who report on racist and violent incidents and evaluate fan behavior.