No Arabs, No Goals – Soccer in Israel as a Metaphor

Although the Israeli Arab soccer player Suan is adored as a national hero from Haifa to Tel Aviv, tolerance displayed towards Israel's Arab citizens remains minimal. By Moshe Zimmermann

Photo: AP
Honored as a national hero in Israel – Abbas Suan (left in photo) after the 1-1 draw against Ireland

​​In the eyes of a majority of Israelis, the most important Arab at the moment is not Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, but rather Abbas Suan. Abbas Suan is, in contrast to Mahmud Abbas, an Israeli Arab and a citizen of Israeli. Abbas Suan is a soccer player, a striker for the local team of the Arab town of Sachnin as well as for the Israeli national team.

A few weeks ago, he was brought in to play against Ireland towards the end of a game to place in the qualifying round of the Soccer World Cup. He managed to score the tying goal to draw 1-1 in the 90th minute. Abbas Suan's goal at the last minute saved Israel's honor and its chance to make it through to the 2006 World Cup.

Arab goal-getters for Israel

That an Arab should have the honor of saving the Jewish state on the soccer field is more than just a bitter pill for Israeli racists at the stadium or in front of the TV screen to swallow.

A few months ago, as Suan celebrated his debut as a player with the Israeli national team in a friendly match against Croatia in Jerusalem – in the heart of Israeli soccer racism – he was booed and cursed for wearing the Israeli colors.

The same public has made clear in recent years that they won't even put up with a non-Arab, although Moslem player sporting the Jerusalem team jersey.

Yet, hardly three days after Suan presented Israeli racists with a dilemma, another event grabbed the headlines. In the next World Cup qualifying round match, this time against France, the guests were ahead 1-0 until the tying goal was kicked by none other than Walid Badir. Badir is more famous than Suan, is also an Israeli Arab, and this wasn't the first time he scored a goal for Israel.

Hardly anything else can better illustrate the paradox of Israeli society than these two goals. An Arab member of the Knesset, in reference to the events, suggested changing the popular slogan of the Israeli right, "No Arabs – no terrorist attacks" (in plain English "Expel all Arabs to prevent terrorist attacks"), with the slogan "No Arabs – no goals" (for Israel).

A lack of tolerance shown towards Israeli Arabs

The general tendency is to understand or criticize Israel almost exclusively in terms of the conflict with the Palestinians of the occupied territories. The result is that the problems facing Israeli Arabs, the Israeli Palestinians, are not addressed.

Yet, it is precisely relations with Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, which pose a major challenge for Israeli democracy. Whatever happens on this front – both in everyday situations and in times of crises, such as the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000 – signals the direction in which Israeli democracy and society at large are heading.

It is an irony of history that the second goal at issue was scored in a game against France, of all nations, a country in which soccer stadiums have been transformed into a stage for playing out the struggle between racism and the integration of Moslems and non-white minorities in French society. The Israeli public seemed not to be quite so sure if it should develop an attitude towards Suan and Badir similar to that of the French towards Zidane and Henry.

And a totally different irony of history was that in the time between the two games, on March 30 to be exact, Israeli Arabs, as they do every year, commemorated "Land Day", which recalls a demonstration held by Israeli Arabs 30 years ago protesting the expropriation of their land. At the time, the event ended in violence. This year, the demonstration took place peacefully and without bloodshed. With the passage of time, the protest has become "civilized".

Now one could say that not only are people behaving appropriately – the protest of the Arab minority was peaceful and the enthusiasm of the majority of Israeli soccer fans leads one to assume a degree of tolerance on the part of the Jewish population – but the proportions are also right. The two Arab players, making up about 20 percent of the national team, are members of a population group that forms approximately 20 percent of the total population.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Unrest is simmering just beneath the surface. Israeli Arabs don't want to be merely tolerated, but expect to be treated as normal citizens. The readiness of the Jewish majority in this respect remains limited. Any talk about the nature of the Jewish state all to often leads to the conclusion that Arabs cannot have equal rights as citizens of Israel.

Even state symbols pose a problem. It is expected of the Arab players on the national team that they ardently sing along to the national anthem. Yet, who can believe this in all good faith? Doesn't the first line go "As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart…" Discussion about the lyrics, nevertheless, remains a taboo.

Then there is the matter of the blue and white flag with the Star of David. Of course, the flag flies above every Arab village in Israel, but it hardly serves as an identification symbol for Arabs. To this day, the Jewish majority has not allowed itself a creative response in solving this problem.

First flowers, then catcalls

As it turns out, the resolute racists among the soccer fans quickly recovered after the first shock. During a game between Betar, the Jerusalem soccer team, and Sachnin only a week after the 1-1 against Ireland, Abbas Suan was greeted first with flowers, only then to be treated to catcalls. Even worse, a gigantic black banner with a blue and white border and the words "Suan, you don't represent us!" was unfurled over the heads of an entire stadium block.

The problem here is that this isn't just the opinion of a so-called "declining minority," but rather of an attitude widespread in society. It is also finds expression at a more elevated level in discussions about the "Jewish character" of the Jewish state that center on numbers.

The warning (!) given by demographers is that within 20 years, the size of the Arab minority will grow from 20 percent of the population to 25 or even 30 percent. The media and the public have become alarmed.

It comes, therefore, as no surprise that the Israeli National Security Council recently prepared new regulations for the law on naturalization, which are intended to further impede the naturalization of Palestinian Arabs who marry Israeli Arabs.

The whole story naturally has a German connection. It has been publicly stressed in Israeli as well as internally within the national team that this time it is not only a matter of making the World Cup qualifying rounds.

The goal is to actually make it to Germany in 2006. It is hoped that German soccer fields will become venues for another sort of settling of accounts with the dark past. This is why the team has to do that much more to reach the final round. The question remains, however, where does Abbas Suan fit in here?

Moshe Zimmermann

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

The author heads the "Richard Koebner Center for German History" at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and lives in Tel Aviv.

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