Can Israelis Teach Brits How to Kick Racism Out of the Soccer Pitch?

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Beitar Jerusalem fans at the season opening.Credit: Michal Fattal

Britain’s soccer leagues may tower above Israel’s in quality, size and pretty much every other measure, but a group of British lawmakers thinks there is at least one area in which the United Kingdom could learn something from soccer in the Jewish state: how to tackle racism on the pitch.

While Israeli teams and their fans, particularly those of Beitar Jerusalem, are often linked to racist and violent incidents, there is also a varied grouping of teams, fan clubs and grassroots organizations committed to fighting hatred and building coexistence through the sport.

This less-known story is the target of a visit this week by members of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group Against anti-Semitism, who are seeking to bring back tools to help Britain fight anti-Semitism and racism in soccer.

“To look at anti-Semitism through the prism of football is quite a good way of looking at what the answers should be,” says John Mann, a Labour MP who chairs the committee.

The lawmakers met with representatives of groups like ISRAFANS, an association that promotes positive fan culture; the Equalizer project, which works to integrate different communities through soccer; and the fan-owned Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, which runs several youth programs aimed at combating racism and supporting coexistence.

“There are things that anti-racists in the U.K. could learn,” Mann told Haaretz in an interview on Wednesday. “We want to steal some of the best practices from the Israelis in tackling racism against Arabs, and use them to deal with anti-Semitism in the U.K.”

British MP John Mann.Credit: Courtesy British Embassy

Mann said it was too early to say exactly what ideas could be adapted, but one possible example he gave was the Equalizer project, which has created nearly 200 elementary school teams from all sectors of Israeli society – boys, girls, Jews, Arabs, immigrants, secular, religious and children with disabilities.

Showcasing Israel’s work against racism abroad could also help the country change its often-negative image, he said.

“Let’s say I took that idea and used it in the U.K., in a city where there’s a Muslim community, and some of the kids playing were Muslim, and then attributed that to an Israeli project,” he said. “That is quite a powerful message.

“This ought to be something that is talked about abroad, particularly amongst the left,” Mann said. “It surprises people on the left in the U.K. and in other parts of Western Europe that there is a vibrant anti-racist movement in Israel tackling anti-Arab racism.”

Mann has been among the most vocal critics of fellow party members who last year plunged Labour into a political storm over a series of anti-Semitic statements. Mann publicly clashed with former London mayor Ken Livingstone, calling him a “disgusting racist” and a “Nazi apologist” over his claim that Hitler had supported Zionism.

Labour’s investigation into anti-Semitism within the party found that there was no institutional problem. However, a scathing report published by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons in October condemned the party’s “demonstrable incompetence” at dealing with members accused of anti-Semitism.

In his comments to Haaretz, Mann said Labour had taken some positive steps, including suspending Livingstone, to combat anti-Semitism within its ranks, but much more remains to be done.

“Are all the problems solved? No. Are there people with problems in their attitudes? Yes,” he said.

The delegation’s visit in Israel also included meetings with politicians and entrepreneurs to discuss methods to combat online hatred. Mann said politicians across the world, as well as Internet giants such as Facebook and Google, need to step up efforts to tackle the hatred, fake news and propaganda that are being spread online.

Social media have given anti-Semites a useful tool to spread their ideas, increasing the number of online incidents, he said, although that must not lead to believe that Jews across the world are facing a “tidal wave” of hatred.

“The nature of anti-Semitism has changed, the vehicle has changed, and we are well behind, all of us, in dealing with this,” Mann said. “Does that mean there are more anti-Semitic attitudes in the world? Not necessarily. Does it mean there are more manifestations of anti-Semitism? Unquestionably, hugely so.”

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