Analysis |

Why Israeli Athletes Hardly if Ever Take a Knee

Country's soccer teams, which dominate local sports, reflect society and its tensions with stunning accuracy

Ran Shimoni
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Colin Kaepernick, center.
Colin Kaepernick, center. Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Ran Shimoni

In the last match between Kiryat Shmona City and Beitar Jerusalem, Shoval Gozlan did it. At the 47th minute, after outjumping Beitar’s David Keltjens in a corner kick and sending the ball into the net with a header, he ran to the bench. Someone handed him a sign he had prepared in advance with the words:

“Recognition, Justice, Healing – Justice for the Kidnapped Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children.” To everyone’s astonishment, Gozlan grabbed the sign and ran with it towards the camera and, with tears in his eyes, indicated the word “Justice” with one hand.

NFL football.Credit: USA Today Sports/REUTERS

The media went wild. The young Kiryat Shmona striker was interviewed for a whole hour wearing a T-shirt of the Amram organization, which advocates for immigrant families whose children went missing between 1948 and 1952, and talked about the injustice and the struggle by thousands of Israelis to know the truth. Fans opened social media pages in support of Gozlan on Facebook, and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev held his hand and promised to attend to the matter.

Let there be no doubt: The scenario in which Gozlan’s call becomes a real protest movement is a pipe dream. Such a protest, like the one now happening in American football, will never make it to Israel. Here, sport denies with all its might any connection to the political scene, tries to present an airbrushed picture of itself devoid of bruises and fissures that says: “Here, the players are engaged in a ballgame. Not a single millimeter beyond that.”

Leaving aside the fan groups, even the most minimal social action by the players takes place in a controlled framework led by the club, which for its part will never challenge political conceptions or annoy anyone by taking a real stance on a complex issue. Politics in Israeli sport is tantamount to a crude offense, contrary to the rules of the game – and in Israel, despite the nature of sport here, they insist on hallowing this unwritten law.

Reflecting society

Our soccer teams reflect Israeli society, the tensions within it and its uniqueness with stunning accuracy. Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin are undoubtedly the most prominent examples, and perhaps the only teams that operate with any sort of ideology, but from the outset sport was born within sectors and struggles between political groups. And in the Israeli case: the split between socialist and nationalist movements. Sport as another arena in which ideology could grow stronger and overwhelm a rival.

Teams were a sporting embodiment of an idea, a belief and a vision and matches became a form of real political participation. Today, however, alongside historical fossils like the names of clubs (Maccabi, Hapoel, Beitar), Israel sport remains political despite itself. When Eran Zahavi flings the national captain’s armband down on the grass after being booed in Haifa, Jerusalem Beitar is unwilling to accept a Muslim player, footballers protest against matches on the Sabbath and Israeli basketball players fight for their place on the court at the expense of the foreigners – the last thing that can be said is that it is forbidden to mix sports and politics, as though that were even an option. The two arenas are intertwined, and sports have never existed in any other way.

Taking a knee on football fields and Golden State basketball player Stephen Curry’s refusal to visit President Donald Trump are further breaking points in the United States. There too, they used to count to 10 before they mounted any barricades, and sometimes counted to infinity. Then along came Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco backup quarterback, who chose to remain seated on the bench during the national anthem in protest against the oppression of blacks and the violence towards them. He chose to take an action. More players replicated it. And as the violence towards African-Americans increased, more and more of them stopped remaining silent. They brought the protest onto the basketball court, the grass, the ice, while making use of their masses of followers on the social networks to transmit a message.

In the United States, too, political protest by sports figures is perceived as indecent but when the biggest sports stars choose to take a stand – the game changes. They enjoy nearly sacred status in American society, earn huge salaries and their endorsement is enough to change a product’s fate or, in the current case, a social struggle. Curry is one of them and when he goes head to head with the president of the United States, it is he and not the president who wins wall-to-wall support.

Kaepernick, however, has had to pay a price for the choice he made, even if at the time he won the support of the most powerful figure in the world, former President Barack Obama. Muhammad Ali too, in his day, ultimately achieved unprecedented stature thanks in part to his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.

In Israel this is not going to happen. When Imaye Taga was fined for having come onto the field wearing a shirt with the slogan “Abera Mengistu is still alive,” in reference to the Ethiopian-born Israeli who disappeared into the Gaza Strip, and no one of stature rose up to defend the Maccabi Netanya midfielder, any chance of that went down the drain. Taga did not face off with the prime minister over the issue, he simply defied the association’s regulations and it turns out that this was enough to silence a courageous outcry. That’s because here in Israel, political action in sports is taboo.

In culture, the army and academia, it is also taboo. Fans aren’t coming out to protest Taga’s treatment, and the players are certainly not doing so. After he was fined, everyone patted Taga on the shoulder, as is customary when someone’s luck has turned rotten and not when a person has made a conscious choice for the sake of social justice.

Protest doesn’t pay

It isn’t the fault of the sports figures. Indeed, we are all just like them. Political action is a decision that doesn’t pay. It is a choice that doesn’t fit the way we were raised. Politics takes time, it’s not a safe investment and it requires the individual to trust his fate to the principles under which his struggle began. A sports figure who succeeds in doing a thing or two in his life, finds a good job, earns a reasonable salary and maybe even becomes famous – why should he risk all that?

In Israel, athletes will never disrespect the national anthem; they’ll always stand at attention. Maybe a player (or two) will seethe inwardly but he’ll keep going out to the field. He’ll keep playing for a club that excludes 20 percent of Israelis and get photographed in the dressing room with a prime minister who incites and sows fear, only so as not to lose his standing with the Israeli public.

After all, here any popularity is random, and he is liable to get booted out if he becomes an annoyance. Here he will not be embraced for his protest, just or otherwise. It is customary to expect of an employee that he will do his job, and sports figures in Israel are not different in this sense – their job is to play, to entertain and, even if they have to deny their true selves, they are required to provide the spectator with a reason to pay for a ticket, and that’s it. Any other move and you’re out of the game.

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