Arab Soccer in Israel

Soccer may contribute to the integration of Arabs as individuals into Israeli society--but it simultaneously blurs their national identity.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from
Jews, Sports, and the Rites of Citizenship
, edited by Jack Kugelmass (University of Illinois).

As part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the state of Israel in 1998, the Israeli Broadcast Authority produced a television series called T’kuma [Revival]. The section about the Arab Palestinian citizens of the state opened with a black-and-white clip of a soccer match, showing Rif’at Turk, a famous star and former member of the Israeli National Team, scoring a goal for Hapoel Tel Aviv. The choice of soccer as a starting point for the discussion about Arabs in Israel is no coincidence, but rather stems from the unique status of the game in Arab-Jewish relations.Soccer game

On the one hand, this choice reflects the relative convenience for Israeli Jews in dealing with Arab citizens as athletes, rather than in any other social role. In sharp contrast to the discriminative character of most Israeli institutions, the integration of Arab soccer teams and players into the Israeli leagues, and their relative success in them, enables the portrayal of Israel as a liberal society impartial to the players’ ethnic or national identities.

On the other hand, the choice reflects the relative convenience of soccer for Arab citizens in channeling their social aspirations. The Palestinian citizens of Israel have learned to create imaginary social wedges between different spheres of life; these boundaries and distinctions aim to relieve the tension created by the contradictory expectations stemming from their identities as Palestinians by nationality and Israelis by citizenship.

In this context, sports in general–and soccer in particular–is constructed as an integrative arena, where a sense of “normal citizenship” is created, albeit bounded by space and time.

Arab Soccer

The most popular sport in Israel, by number of spectators, television ratings, and money involved, is soccer. The last two decades of the twentieth century saw a marked rise in the number of Arab teams playing in the Israeli soccer leagues. In the 1976-77 season, only eight Arab teams played in the top four leagues. In 1992, twenty-one Arab teams were playing in those leagues, and by 2001, that number had almost doubled to forty teams. The percentages of Arab teams in these leagues grew from 7 percent in 1977 to 35 percent in 2001.

The Arab teams’ achievements are even more striking when taking into account the strong correlation between the size of a team’s hometown and its representation in the higher divisions. Because the Arabs in Israel are spread out in settlements smaller than those of the Jews, the starting point from which they must climb to the senior divisions is lower.

To bring this point home, the median number of residents of settlements represented in the National League in 1997-98 was about 154,000; in the second division, the median was about 50,000; and in the third division, and 29,000. In contrast, the Arab teams represented much smaller settlements: In the 1997-98 season, three Arab teams played in the second division, representing settlements whose residents numbered between 15,000 to 25,000; in the third division, ten settlements were represented, whose median number of residents was about 13,000.

Also, Arab fans’ interest in their teams rose during the 1990s in comparison with Jewish fans, demonstrated by the large number of tickets sold by Arab teams relative to Jewish ones.

The success of Arab teams was accompanied by the success of the individual players–more and more Arabs earned positions on Israel’s senior teams and even on the national squad. As I explain below, because of the symbolic power of soccer, this multidimensional success confronts the Arab fans with critical questions about identity.

An Arab Presence

Arabs in Israel are socially inferior. This applies to politics, economy, education, and in practically every realm where they compete with Jewish citizens. Soccer, therefore, constitutes a unique subsphere of Israeli public life where Arab citizens have made remarkable achievements.

In any situation of group conflict, it can be said that the empowerment of minorities in the general public sphere is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, such empowerment has its “subversive” aspect, which is identified with separatist tendencies or an aspiration to construct isolated social conclaves. On the other hand, when this empowerment is achieved within the framework of a state-oriented institution, it reaffirms the legitimacy of the majority’s domination and represents the society’s integrative tendencies.

The success of minorities in certain sports often turns the sports arena into a key location for the expression of nationalist feelings. For example, during athletic performances, well-known soccer teams bear the flag of their supporters’ separate national identities. The Celtic soccer team in Glasgow represents the Irish-Catholic minority in the city, and the Athletic Bilbao team represents the Basque minority in Spain. The Barcelona soccer team represents Spain’s Catalonian region, and al-Wahdat–the Palestinian team in Jordan–gives its fans an opportunity to vocalize their identity as a national minority.

At the same time, supporting a soccer team with a clear ethnic identity may constitute an opportunity for collective integration into the majority society, especially when the minority faces serious difficulties accepting the common symbols of the majority. For some of the Catholic working-class supporters of the Celtic team in Glasgow, fandom is not only an expression of their ethnic identity but also a collective integrationist channel into Scottish society. With the exception of soccer, these fans consider all other symbols and institutions of the majority Presbyterian.

This duality is fully evident in the public discourse on the involvement of Arab teams and players in the Israeli leagues. The potential symbolic power of the soccer game has made it a battleground of meanings: Different social agents try to articulate different meanings based on ideology or interests. These meanings reflect alternative definitions of collective identities for the Arabs in Israel.

Hence, the soccer game in Israel is played on two different levels: The first is on the field, where professional excellence is needed for winning; the second is the broader public sphere, in which power relations between various agents of identity are expressed in the battle over consciousness. The main axis of this battle is the above-mentioned dialectic–an opportunity for integration into Israeli society and acceptance by the Jewish majority versus a stage for promoting national pride. Because there is an inherent tension between these two goals, emphasizing one usually means confronting and challenging the other.

The power relations between the meaning shapers are not equal. The hegemonic meaning produced by the Hebrew media describes soccer as a meritocratic and integrative sphere in which the national identity of the players and spectators is irrelevant. As such, soccer may contribute to the integration of Arabs as individuals into Israeli society. But it simultaneously blurs their national identity.

By way of contrast, most of the Arab sports journalists attempt to emphasize the national identity of the players and clubs, aiming to build around them a sense of national Arab or Palestinian pride. As the same time, if one might make such a broad generalization, the Arab players on the field, the Arab soccer bureaucrats, and the Arab audience in the bleachers tend to adopt the hegemonic interpretation, emphasizing professionalism and the shared experience with the Jewish fans.

Representing Israel, Pride to the Arab Nation

In the evening of May 18, 2004, while Israeli troops stormed Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip in another attempt to crush the Palestinian uprising against the occupation, both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat found time for phone calls concerning trivial issues.

Both leaders called Mazen Ghenayem, the director of Ittihad Abna Sakhnin soccer club, who that evening became the first Arab team to win the Israeli National Cup. Sharon emphasized his confidence that the team would represent Israel in an honorable manner in Europe, while Arafat claimed the team brought pride to the Arab nation.

This dual congratulation, while seemingly paradoxical, was possible because of the peculiar and multifaceted image of Arab soccer in Israel and the attempts by different agents to use it for their political purposes. Furthermore, these attempts are evidence that soccer is not only an “interesting angle” to probe questions of identity; the dominance of soccer in the leisure culture of Arab men in Israel also makes it a central social sphere by itself and should be treated as such.

By their massive support for an Arab team who won the Israel National Cup and by their desire to represent Israel on the International level, Arab soccer fans presented the Israeli public with a dramatic proposal. Their consistent endeavors to articulate their success in Israeli, even patriotic terms, undermine the basic assumptions of the hegemonic definition of Israeli identity.

They offer, therefore, an Israeliness that is not necessarily Jewish and has nothing to do with the IDF and the ethos of “security.” This Israeliness is bilingual, speaking with Arabic and Hebrew and vibrantly switching between the two. It is secular in its institutional form but tolerant of any religion, and can even tolerate Muslim prayer in the national sphere, like the collective prayer of Sakhnin’s Muslim players right after their victory.

It is based on active participation in the Israeli arena and on a dialogue between the various ethnic and religious groups within it. It is competitive and achievement oriented but not predatory and manipulative. As soccer in Israel is a masculine institution that marginalizes women, this “identity proposal” is far from offering a utopian model for equality. But given the road that needs to be traveled in regard to solving this ethnonational and religious conflict, the model presented is a very good start, indeed.

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