A legendary Israeli soccer player became the target of harsh criticism over an on-air rant in which he railed about the disloyalty of Israeli Arab lawmakers, calling them "terrorists" and spies. Eyal Berkovic now faces a defamation lawsuit, the threat of criminal charges and a lawsuit, and ultimately had his talk show suspended.
The controversy over Berkovic's remarks came with nerves still raw and emotions high in the Israeli Arab community following the passage of the nation-state law, which stipulates that "the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Berkovic’s attack on the country’s Arab politicians was so harsh that a subsequent apology coupled with the network’s announcement that the show would be suspended for a week did little to calm the furor – which has been directed both at Berkovic and at the network broadcasting his show for permitting the pre-taped program to air.
The soccer star launched his tirade Friday on “Ofira and Berkovic,” the show he co-hosts with broadcaster Ofira Asayag on which the two personalities often joke and tease one other about matters personal and political.
Asayag initiated the discussion, noting how difficult it had become to get Israeli Arab politicians to appear on the program, listing several by name. Berkovic responded by saying that not only did it fail to disturb him that Arab MKs are reluctant to go on the air, he didn’t want them there in the first place.
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Berkovic said Arab lawmakers “know they are Trojan horses, sit in the Knesset and spy, and so they know what I’m going to say to them: They’re not one of us.”
“Don’t come,” he declared, looking at the camera as if to address the politicians directly. “I’m asking you – don’t show up. We’ve been doing great without you. We don’t need you here. If you come, I’m going to get up and leave. There’s no chance I’d ever interview them. I wouldn’t give them the honor. I’d go.”
While Asayag unsuccessfully attempted to keep the banter lighthearted, Berkovic recounted his clashes with Arab politicians in the past. “Don’t bring them here if you don’t want me to leave,” he warned her. If they come to the show, he reiterated, “I won’t talk to them. I don’t want to see them.” He stressed that “this isn’t a racist thing: they simply hate Israel. They’re simply terrorists who sit in the Knesset. I don’t want to sit with them, I don’t want to interview them and I don’t want to see them.”
With a resigned tone, Asayag concluded, “so it’s better they don’t come” and quickly brought the show to an end.
Outrage exploded across social media the following day, directed both at Berkovic and the network broadcasting the show, with several lawmakers calling for Berkovic to be fired.
“It’s high time for Berkovic to pay for his foul mouth,” tweeted MK Esawi Freige (Meretz), who threatened to sue Berkovic. MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) tweeted that Berkovic had committed a “blood libel” against Arab lawmakers. MK Jamal Zahalka (Joint List) tweeted that he had been invited to appear on the program “many times,” but refused.
Following the angry backlash Friday night and Saturday, Berkovic issued an apology, saying that he “didn’t mean to offend either the Arab community or all the Arab Knesset members.” He added: “I have deep disagreements with some of them, but I didn’t intend to offend and stigmatize all of them. Some of the language I used was inappropriate, and for that, I apologize.”
On the same day, the broadcaster, Keshet, said Berkovic’s remarks “shouldn’t have been aired, and we apologize to anyone who was offended. As in many previous shows, MKs from across the political spectrum will be invited to the next show.”
When the controversy refused to subside, Keshet announced a day later, on Sunday, that due to “the gravity” of Berkovic’s remarks, the company “decided to spend the coming days scrutinizing the rules and procedures. Therefore, the program won’t air this Friday.”
Following the announcement, Haaretz columnist Ariana Melamed wrote that the action was insufficient punishment, and published a formal complaint she said she had filed with police, calling on them to charge him with incitement.
Berkovic is hardly a stranger to controversy. He frequently clashed with teammates and managers both in Israel and Britain. In 2002, while playing for Manchester City, he was investigated for making a “throat-cutting” gesture at a female fan, which he claimed was a response to anti-Semitic heckling. An article on the incident that appeared in the U.K. tabloid The Sun bore the headline "You're vile, Eyal."
Berkovic dominated the Israeli soccer scene in the 1990s, playing for Maccabi Haifa and the country’s national team. From 1996 to 2005, he found success overseas, playing on several top-tier teams in the U.K., returning to Israel afterwards for a brief stint as a player.
Following the end of his athletic career, he managed several teams, owns one, and appeared frequently on television as a commentator, reality show participant and host.