How a Soccer Match Showcased the Cheapest Kind of Israeli Patriotism

The transformation of a competitive human contest (between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Bnei Sakhnin) into a national confrontation is a low, cynical move, based on shaky factual ground.

Maccabi Tel Aviv's Tal Ben Haim during the mayhem following the match with Bnei Sakhnin, April 25, 2016.
Nir Keidar

It’s only rarely that one has an opportunity to see fallacious nationalism in action. Not only live, but taking the fast lane, under laboratory conditions, running the gamut from A to Z. It then turns out that patriotism is sometimes not just the last refuge of scoundrels – patriotism is also the fast track of the whiners, the cowards, the hypocrites and the sanctimonious.

It has abundant room, this phony, instant patriotism, and it’s always ready to wrap all its sons within the folds of the flag, whenever they encounter some momentary distress. The last example of this occurred this week on the soccer pitch, and it is worth looking at more closely.

First of all, the incident took place only after the final whistle blew and the two sides had stopped playing, and secondly, it clarifies again the dynamics of political spectacles acted out in the spirit of Netanyahu’s “the Arabs are coming in droves to the polling stations, brought in on buses by leftist organizations” or Herzog’s “how do we ingratiate ourselves with the public without giving them the feeling that we’re always Arab-lovers.”

This is how events unfolded: In the midst of a dramatic semifinal cup game against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Bnei Sakhnin players kicked the ball off the field to allow medical attention to be given to one of their players who had signaled that he was injured. In contrast to customary ‘fair play’ norms, Maccabi players hurried to retrieve the ball and in the ensuing attack managed to score an important goal that led them to victory and to the finals, leaving their rivals behind.

A storm erupted. Sakhnin vowed to take revenge, and proceeded to do so. The two teams met again four days later for another fateful league match. In front of the packed Doha stadium in Sakhnin the two teams played a charged but sportsmanlike game that ended in a draw, depriving Maccabi Tel Aviv of two important points on its road to the championship.

With the final whistle, Sakhnin coach Yossi Abuksis waved his fist in the air to mark a joyous victory. Maccabi’s fitness coach responded with angry words. In rushed Predrag Rajkovic, Maccabi’s Serbian goalkeeper, pushing Abuksis and causing him to lose his balance and fall over. A person close to Sakhnin’s management tried in turn to assault Rajkovic, leading to a violent, ugly uproar.

At this point Maccabi player Tal Ben-Haim decided to take matters into his own hands. He’s known as a hothead and professional troublemaker. He was the one who decided not to return the disputed ball to Sakhnin in the earlier game. This time he led his team to the section in which Maccabi fans were sitting, from which cries of “death to the Arabs” could be heard. They grabbed some large Israeli flags and wrapped themselves in them. In an angry interview after the game Maccabi’s star player Eran Zehavi added fuel to the fire, saying, “We felt like we were playing in Ramallah.”

This is the pivotal moment of the odious kind of patriotism: turning a competitive human contest (which was mainly conducted in a sportsmanlike fashion until after the final whistle blew) into a national confrontation. This is a low, cynical move, based on shaky factual ground.

The Bnei Sakhnin team employs, in addition to its Arab Israeli stars, a Jewish coach and Jewish players (as well as a Serbian and some Brazilians). This is also a team that represents an Arab Israeli city, in which tens of thousands of Israeli Arab citizens live. Maccabi players don’t usually wrap themselves in the national flag after matches. They make do with the yellow and blue flags of their club, which has its eyes on the larger world. Its owners are Canadian and its management and coaches are professionals from Holland and Spain.

However, at the moment of truth, this is the instinct and refuge of the hooligan and the provocateur, whether he is running up and down a soccer pitch or operating from the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.