Racism and Soccer, Then and Now

A panel discussion about 'Liga Terezin,' a documentary Jewish soccer players in Nazi ghettos, was quickly hijacked by the Beitar Jerusalem racism controversy.

Prof. Moshe Zimmerman, Avrum Burg, the Czech ambassador to Israel and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Moshe Lugasi went to see a movie. No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke, but an event that actually took place Sunday evening, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the auditorium of the Palmach Museum in Ramat Aviv. The event: the premiere of the film “Liga Terezin.”

The 52-minute documentary tells of the makeshift amateur soccer league that arose in the Theresienstadt Ghetto northwest of Prague between 1942 and 1944, with games played in a public square in front of thousands of sick and hungry spectators. Most of the players and spectators were eventually loaded onto trains heading east. It is a chilling archive of material worth more than a thousand verbal testimonies. The hair sweeping the players’ faces as they headed the ball, the diagonal passes by a midfielder who survived on fewer than 900 calories a day, a player who, according to the commentator, “doesn’t drop his body enough” and shoots too high. Whoever loves soccer cannot but be moved by the sight: There is soccer in the ghetto.

The movie ends and the panel discussion begins.

Former Jewish Agency head and Knessset speaker Avrum Burg goes first, and immediately relates to the demand by fans for “purity” at Beitar Jerusalem, in response to the team’s plans to sign two Muslim players. Burg talks about the slippery slope and compares those who hoisted such a banner at Teddy Stadium on Saturday with those who exterminated people 70 years ago they may be in different places at different times, but there’s a clear common denominator.

The taboo rears up

There is a taboo in this country against making such a direct comparison, so the 250 people in the audience including members of the national youth and junior team squads, Hapoel Tel Aviv youth team coach Ze’ev Seltzer and former national team and Chelsea coach Avram Grant decline to make it. But they applaud Burg when he criticizes the Israel Football Association’s weak treatment of racism in the country’s soccer stadiums.

At the end of the event I approach Burg and ask him for ideas how to combat the anti-Arab hatred displayed by many Beitar Jerusalem fans. “Let’s say Beitar is banned from playing a few games at home. So we’ve ticked off the box but is that really enough?” he asks.

“My fear is that if this phenomenon continues, and the IFA doesn’t take action, then [soccer’s world governing body] FIFA will step in and act in its place,” he continues. “They haven’t gotten involved until now, because our soccer governing body is legitimate. But from the moment it ceases to be legitimate, FIFA will step in and manage the issue. It’s like an external ad hoc committee. They would demote Beitar to a lower league, and maybe some of the IFA heads will be forced to leave. You’re asking me if I want outside intervention? No. I want us to sort such things out ourselves.”

Burg’s worry appears to be very well-taken. The British sports writer Simon Kuper prefers to relate to the issue from a wider perspective. “The Europeans have to understand what happened in the Holocaust,” he says. “I don’t believe the Holocaust could have happened under a democratic regime. In Europe, the quickest way to be considered a ‘bad boy’ is to applaud the Holocaust, to say something in its favor. When fans in Europe do so, they don’t really call for another Holocaust they’re just proving that they’re ‘bad boys.’”

On his way out of the hall I bring him back to the Levant and ask him if there’s a chance FIFA will take IFA Chairman Avi Luzon’s place. Kuper pauses for a moment, gives the smile of a warm-hearted Jew and tries to be careful. “If FIFA stands behind its anti-racism position, then it has to get involved, even though there’s isn’t really any historical precedent,” he says. “Glasgow Rangers, for example, did not sign Catholic players until 20 years ago, but FIFA had trouble acting against it because this discrimination was unofficial and not written down anywhere, and was in the end stopped by the club itself.

“On the other hand, if you really want, it is possible to overcome this legal hurdle by presenting the statistics,” he continues. “In America they say that if you have 1,000 doctors in a hospital and none of them are black, it’s definitely not by chance. By the same token, if about 20 percent of Israeli soccer players are Arabs yet none of them has ever played for Beitar Jerusalem, there can be only one explanation for this.”

The taboo retreats

An evening featuring a Holocaust movie and a panel on anti-Semitism in soccer at the Palmach Museum in the presence of Holocaust survivors, including even some from the Theresienstadt ghetto, the Austrian ambassador to Israel and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Arab player Moanes Dabour should be the taboo’s finest hour. But the public debate on the panel is braver and more profound than expected. On this evening, a taboo seems to be rising against utterance of the worn-out slogan “don’t compare,” while the taboo against comparing begins to weaken. The important things are said specifically, and the audience shows no sign of discomfort.

At 9:15 P.M., not only the dozens of youth and junior players are eager for answers. “Professor Zimmerman, how do we tackle the problem of racism in sport?” one of them asks. “But briefly please, because Maccabi Haifa versus Hapoel Tel Aviv has already begun, so maybe we can stop for the second half?”

Zimmerman, a Hebrew University Professor of German history, a Germanophile who studied at the University of Baden-Wurttemberg, calms his questioner: “What’s the rush?” he asks. “The game between Hamburg and Werder Bremen has already finished.”

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