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A test of loyalties in the colours of the Jewish state

Published: March 24 2007 02:00 | Last updated: March 24 2007 02:00

Walid Badir is an Arab. He is also an Israeli football international. In today's home game against England he will probably be one of two Arabs trying to help Israel qualify for the 2008 European Championships.

Like most of Israel's 1.3m or so Arab citizens, Badir has a complex relationship with the Jewish state. Israeli troops killed his grandfather in the Kafr Qasim massacre of 1956 but Badir doesn't talk about that. In the national team he feels "like everyone", he says.


When he headed the equalising goal against France in 2005, stories went around the world portraying Israel's mediocre team as a vision of a country where Arabs and Jews live happily together. Football is the realm where Israeli Arabs are most visible, explains Tamir Sorek in his thoughtful forthcoming book Arab Soccer in a Jewish State*. But can a game really help Arabs integrate?

Israel's Arabs come from families who remained in the country after the war of 1948. They now make up about a fifth of Israel's population, and a far greater share of its footballing constituency. Israeli Arab men love football, watching far more of it on television than do Israeli Jews. In the national team Arab players suffer no apparent discrimination.

That makes it a rare haven in Israeli life. Israeli Arabs are much better off than Palestinians in the occupied territories, but the state did confiscate much of their land, while their villages do badly for sewers, schools and rubbish collection.

Arabs don't always feel welcome in their own country. In 2003, around the height of the Palestinian suicide bombings, a third of Israeli Jews told a survey they favoured expelling the country's Arabs. As Joseph Lelyveld writes in the New York Review of Books, the Israeli state "implicitly relegates [Arabs] to second-class status by defining itself as Jewish".

However, Israel's football team is different. After an Arab scores for Israel, graffiti appears saying "No Arabs No Goals", a retort to the far-right slogan "No Arabs No Terrorism". In Sorek's phrase, football is an "integrative enclave" for Arabs. The national team offers an "Israeliness which is not necessarily Jewish . . . and has nothing to do with the ethos of 'security' . . . This Israeliness . . . speaks both Arabic and Hebrew . . . can tolerate any religion."

Many Israeli Arabs crave that. Through football, they express a wish to integrate. Arab football fans sing in Hebrew and often support Jewish clubs. This is partly because it's mostly the more integrative Arabs who follow Israeli football. Sorek found they spoke Hebrew more than other Arabs and were more likely to vote for Zionist parties. The more opposition-minded Arabs shun mainstream Israeli teams, sometimes gravitating to the local Islamic League, where players wear trousers and fans chant "There is no god but Allah".

Today's game will be hard for Israeli Arabs. Before kick-off, the Hatikva, the national anthem that celebrates the "Jewish soul" and "land of Zion and Jerusalem", will be played. Arab spectators are expected to stand; Arab players to sing along. Abbas Suan, an Arab who has played for Israel, says: "I don't like singing."

Inevitably, many Arabs feel ambivalent about the team. In Sorek's survey, 69 per cent of Arab men said they supported Israel when an Arab was playing. However, when no Arab was playing, only 49 per cent supported Israel and 27 per cent backed Israel's opponents. In short, even the national team doesn't make Arabs feel "like everyone".

Sorek identifies in Israeli Arabs a craving to belong to a nation but an uncertainty as to which one. This is expressed beautifully during World Cups, when Arab towns are hung with Italian, Brazilian or German flags, and the inhabitants can pretend for a month that they have a nation.

When Sorek asked Arab fans if they had a "dream in sports", many "tied their dream" to their town's team, or a big Jewish club, while a full third "tied their dreams to a national team of another country". Only 1.6 per cent "tied their dream" to Israel's national team, and 0.7 per cent to Palestine's.

Still, the Israeli team is undeniably more Arab-friendly than most Israeli institutions. The question is whether this makes a difference. Football rarely changes anything. As a meritocracy, it offers the promise that nobody with talent will suffer discrimination, but this rule rarely extends into daily life, no matter how well Badir plays.

In any case, in Israel the football team is a sideshow. The most religious Jews worry more about salvation than match results. The million or so Russian immigrants since 1989 tend to be sniffy about the team's shortcomings. And many Israelis prefer basketball.

Saggie Cohen, Israeli football commentator, likens Israel's hardworking football team to a "limping puppy". He says: "It's almost inhumane not to like it." However, it hardly carries the nation's pride.

"In Israel we have more important things to worry about than football," explains Cohen. "Arabs can play in our team - it's not a big deal."

If Badir scores today, it won't mean anything except that Steve McClaren, the England manager, might soon be looking for a new job.*Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave (Cambridge University Press, $85)

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