Opinion

The Israeli ‘Dream Team’

If the captain of Israel’s national soccer team can be a Muslim, why shouldn’t there be equally talented Arab mayors in the mixed cities of Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem?

Israel's starting eleven players pose for a group picture before the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Israel and Wales at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, on March 28, 2015.
AFP/Jack Guez

Theodor Herzl, a Viennese man who was born in Budapest, offered a vision of the Jewish state. Around 120 years later, another Viennese man, Andreas Herzog, has offered a vision of a state of all its citizens. He did so unwittingly; the vision was born this week during a soccer game between the Albanian national team and the Israeli national team, of which Herzog is the new coach. This was a game that must be captured, studied and preserved. Soccer is just soccer, but what happened on the field in Haifa may yet happen one day far beyond that. One may dream occasionally, and Herzl taught us that if we want it, dreams can even come true. Herzog taught us this week that it’s possible, at least on the soccer field. He established a binational and egalitarian Israel in miniature.

A lot of balls have been kicked around since the national teams of our childhood, which weren’t just all-Jewish, of course, but also all-Ashkenazi, in the spirit of the times, with Glazer, Hodorov, Menchel, Stelmach, Tish and Reznik, the heroes of chewing gum wrappers. After that the Mizrahi players arrived and became the decisive majority.

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And then came the unbelievable, or perhaps it was really the inevitable — the Arabs arrived. The present absentees trickled in, tentatively at first — a Jimmy Turk here, a Zahi Armeli there — until this week at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, when they took their rightful places by storm. Of the national team’s 11 players, six were Arab. Half and half, as it is between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. All of the midfielders were Arab. The captain was Bibras Natkho, a Circassian Muslim. The goalie was Ariel Harush, the hero of Maya Zinstein’s documentary “Forever Pure,” who fought with amazing courage against the racism of his team, Beitar Jerusalem, until his struggle resulted in his removal from the team.

It was one of the national team’s best games ever, and its second successive win with the same lineup. It’s been years since such a spirit of cooperation and brotherhood has infused the national team, and it’s been a while since it has generated such enthusiasm.

Coach Herzog surely wasn’t focused on identity politics. But only a coach who had just landed from the moon could ignore the background noise and choose the best players for the team with abnormal normalcy. His Jewish Israeli predecessors were not as bold. They would include a few Arabs with the appropriate caution. But Herzog didn’t get the memo. If Moanes Dabour, who plays for Red Bull Salzburg, is the best Israeli player today, then he’s on the national team. If Taleb Tawatha is good enough for Frankfurt, he’s perfect for the national team. If Dia Saba is one of the most talented players in the Premier League, he belongs on the team. And when Saba scored the goal against Albania, and all his teammates, Jews and Arabs alike, jumped on him and embraced him, there was something emotional in the air, far beyond the sports achievement.

The French national team is a team of all its immigrants, which is why it’s exciting and successful. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the son of immigrants, was the best of Sweden’s soccer players. When their paths are blocked in many realms of life, sports allows minorities to integrate and excel. No one is as hungry to succeed as they are and this shatters stereotypes more than any struggle.

Here we’re talking about native-born players, not immigrants and not even minorities in the whole country that has emerged. Soon, inshallah, maybe players from Gaza and Hebron will play on the one state’s national team. Israeli Arabs’ path to success is blocked, but soccer has opened a window for them. And lo and behold, it works, and with amazing success. So what if Eliran Atar of Maccabi Tel Aviv called Saba a “stinking Arab.” The world doesn’t change overnight, but the national team has marked a new and revolutionary direction for Israel.

If the national team captain can be a Muslim who is prepared to sing “Hatikva” on condition that one word of the national anthem is changed, and he is accepted and admired by all, then why shouldn’t there be equally talented Arab mayors in the mixed cities of Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem? It works for soccer, and it could work way beyond soccer. All we need is an Austrian coach to land from the moon and launch the revolution.