When a Soccer Game Reflects Israel's Ugly Nature

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s unfair, unethical victory over a team from the Arab town of Sakhnin last week serves as a perfect metaphor for the state’s actions.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Tal Ben Haim celebrating in front of Maccabi Tel Aviv fans.
Tal Ben Haim celebrating in front of Maccabi Tel Aviv fans.Credit: Nir Keidar
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Bnei Sakhnin soccer player Ali Ottman was down, injured. Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Tal Ben Haim ignored the prone player and played on, going on to score the winning goal near the end of Thursday’s semifinal between the two sides. What happened? Granted, Israeli soccer is not a reflection of this country. It’s almost the only near-egalitarian meeting place between Jews and Arabs here (with the exception of Beitar Jerusalem). It’s the only place for Israeli Arabs to excel in, despite all the manifestations of racism. But what happened in Thursday evening’s cup game between the two sides – soccer giant Maccabi Tel Aviv and underdog Bnei Sakhnin, from the northern Arab town – went far beyond the boundaries of soccer.

For a moment, the emotions that gripped me during the game were only a little less – how embarrassing – than the turmoil I felt while watching the execution by the Israeli soldier in Hebron last month. I’m not comparing between a killing and a goal, or between a despicable taking of life and an unfair victory. However, the behavior of the stronger party was astonishingly similar in both cases: aggressive, brutal and arrogant, and therefore outrageous. Maccabi Tel Aviv again proved worthy of the title “the team of the state” – its standards are identical to Israel’s.

Ben Haim said afterward he was only “a cog” in the system so he continued playing, in violation of ethical guidelines, while the injured Ottman lay on the turf. What have ethics got to do with Ben Haim? He gets paid by Maccabi, he explained, and Maccabi’s “philosophy” is to do what the referee says.

What has Maccabi to do with ethics? That’s like asking what Israel has to do with international law. Maccabi continued to play because it could, and Israel continues doing what it does because it can. Maccabi continued because nobody stopped it. Nobody is stopping Israel, either. For Maccabi, it is victory at any price and to hell with all the rest. The same goes for Israel – its victory is always at any cost, and it, too, is allowed to do anything.

The fans also said familiar things. They didn’t understand what the fuss was about. It wouldn’t be such a wild guess to say that these are the very same Israelis who don’t understand what the fuss was about in Hebron, either. Or the late Sammy Ofer (who funded the Haifa stadium where the game took place) or the Tel Rumeida settlement in Hebron where the wounded Palestinian assailant was shot. For the strong, everything is permitted.

Elor Azaria, the soldier facing a manslaughter charge for the Hebron shooting, and Tal Ben Haim are only cogs. Azaria and Ben Haim are heroes. How did Maccabi’s Eran Zahavi, another local hero, put it? “I’m proud of what Ben Haim did,” he said. Look at Ben Haim and Zahavi’s arrogance and see our reflection.

Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier charged with manslaughter after shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head, is greeted as he arrives home in Ramle, on April 22, 2016.Credit: AFP

Then there are the referees who looked away and kept silent. It’s not their role to intervene. They don’t have the authority. That, too, is so similar and familiar.

Then there’s the world, in the form of Maccabi’s Dutch coach, Peter Bosz, who also found contemptible reasons for the abomination – just as the equally miserable European Union finds excuses for its inaction.

Some commentators explained that Bnei Sakhnin’s coach, Yossi Abukasis is not perfect, either – something they always say here about the rival or the enemy, to assuage our near-unperturbed conscience. It was all there on the field in Haifa. Then, of course, there are the Arabs, who are once more the real victims. But it wasn’t a case of “he’s not really injured, he’s an Arab” this time, because, to Maccabi’s credit, they would have acted like that toward any team, regardless of religion or race.

Maccabi won again and Tel Aviv rejoiced. With an annual budget of 135 million shekels ($36 million), 10 times more than Sakhnin’s, who can stand against it? It’s rich, strong and, therefore, is allowed to do anything. In soccer as in life. Ben Haim runs forward and who will stand in his way? Certainly not those bleeding hearts with their ethics-shmethics. So shoot, Ben Haim, shoot. And kill, Azaria, kill. You both can. You’re both hot shots.

Tel Ben Haim celebrating after scoring what turned out to be the winner in Maccabi Tel Aviv's 3-2 victory over Bnei Sakhnin on April 21, 2016.Credit: Nir Keidar

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