Hollow Hopes and Sad Delusions

In Israel the situation of Arab athletes is dismal, catastrophical, but it is doubtful whether Israeli society can support the drastic change needed.

I'm not a great interpreter of numbers, but still, when I visited the United States a few weeks ago I was told that it's national debt is 14.3 trillion dollars. A few days later, as I was strolling around New York, I saw a number being flashed on one of the buildings: 11 trillion. I asked someone what the number signified, and then I understood - that was the nation's debt on that day. I was stunned by the amazing drop in such a short time.

For some reason, this anecdote was the first thing that sprung to my mind when I was asked to write about sports in the Arab communities of Israel. I was probably thinking of the possibility of drastic change, or at least damage control. In Israel the situation of Arab athletes is dismal, catastrophical - but I doubt if Israeli society can support the drastic change needed.

Sports are supposed to help ethnic minorities survive. When Rudy Giuliani decided to fight crime in New York, one of his initiatives was to offer poor children more sports activities to help harness their energies in more positive directions. Here in Israel, the situation in what is know as the "sector" is stagnant: There is almost way of supporting sports activities, and many talented boys and girls never get a chance to explore possibilities which could help them expose their talents. Since there are precious few other alternatives, many young Arabs turn to the simplest activity they know: smoking a hookah.

For more than 30 years, I have been playing soccer in the veterans league in Kfar Makar, the village near my hometown of Acre. In the past three years, the football pitch has been transformed into a garbage dump. Its fences have been torn down, the goalposts have been uprooted and the dressing rooms reduced to ruins. In this large village there are still two or three basketball courts, but no lighting in any of them. In other words, this is classic third world. Kfar Makar is just an example, a microcosm of Arab-Israeli society.

Everyone knows that the "sector" is highly dependent on the local authorities. Once, and this is strangely nostalgic, the municipalities were able to supply residents with their basic needs, including the basic need for soccer clubs, and sometimes basketball clubs as well. But that situation is a thing of the distant past. Ahi Nazareth, representing the largest Arab city in Israel, is run by an appointed committee, just like most Arab cities and towns, whose affairs are managed by Interior Ministry-appointed accountants. This is true as well for Bnei Sakhnin, the most obvious representative of Arab society, which barely manages to scrape together the minimum budget required every year for membership in the Premier League.

The "sector" was once able to rely on businessmen who would agree to sacrifice some of their fortune to guarantee the continued existence of the soccer teams, but in recent years, there are fewer and fewer donors, mainly because of clan infighting and fiscal mismanagement.

In a democracy, the powerless ethnic minority should receive more from the state, and an improved sense of equality can spill over in to culture and sports. In Israel this is just a sad delusion: The state will continue to treat it's Arab citizens as despised stepchildren. A child in Umm al-Fahm is worth less that a child in Rishon Letzion. Even the Doha Stadium was built thanks to donors from Qatar.

Because of the recent political upheavals in the Arab world, money can no longer be raised from the rich oil states. Without a drastic change, the decline and neglect will continue, chaos will rule, and that will lead to an apocalypse. The main problem facing the Arab communities in Israel is violence. Sports activities could stop some of that and make the "sector" somewhat more tranquil, more positive. But even that hope has been expropriated, just like so much of the Arab lands. I find it hard to believe that there's anyone in the universe who isn't aware of the love and enthusiasm Arab-Israelis have for sports, but it seems that here in Israel that emotion is ignored. The damage is already done. The only hope is that it can somehow be controlled.


Zouheir Bahloul is a veteran sports broadcaster in Hebrew and Arabic and director of A-Shams Radio Sports' department.