Sunday, March 20, 2005
Racism in "the Promised Land"
Promised land stained by spread of racism
Being an Israeli international is not good enough for a bigoted section of the Tel Aviv support if you are also an Arab or black-skinned, reports Dave Hannigan
As Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated Bnei Sakhnin 2-0 at Bloomfield last Sunday night, a section of their fans seemed oblivious to the team’s return to winning ways. They were too busy abusing Salam Abu Siam, one of their own defenders. Abu Siam wasn’t playing badly. For some supporters, though, he was guilty of an unforgivable crime — namely, being an Arab. With the crowd calling him everything from “terrorist” to “martyr”, and repeatedly urging him to go and play in Palestine, Abu Siam eventually left the field in tears. Welcome to football in the promised land.
Baruch Dago scored Maccabi’s first goal that evening with a wonderful header in the fourth minute that probably spared him some rough treatment from the stands. Fourteen years after his family swapped Addis Ababa in Ethiopia for a refugee centre in Beersheba, Dago discovered the hard way that too many fans could not see past the pigmentation of his skin. Jewish and an Israeli international to boot, he was jeered because of his colour by Maccabi fans when he replaced Avi Nimni, a beloved veteran in their side, last year. “Go back to the jungle” and “dirty black” were among the most common epithets used.
“I was used to fans from opposing sides taunting and cursing me, but that would just motivate me to pay them back with a goal or a win,” said Dago. “But when it came from our fans — from Jews in my own country — when only months earlier I had helped bring the team the championship, I was really hurt. I see the problems with racism are only growing.”
Twelve years ago, Cameroon international Cyril Makanaky joined Maccabi Tel Aviv and broke Israeli soccer’s colour barrier. His arrival prompted the first cacophony of monkey noises from crowds and every black player, regardless of nationality or religion, who followed has had to suffer the same fate. If Clinton Morrison figures at the Ramat Gan stadium on Saturday, he’s likely to hear that chorus, too.
“As throughout Europe, black players in Israel whether from abroad, or Israelis of Ethiopian origin, are subject to monkey chants and other taunts,” said Itzik Shanan, director of communications at the New Israel Fund (NIF), an activist group trying to combat the menace. “A major goal of our New Voice in the Stadium campaign is to stamp this out.
“However, the racist abuse by Jewish fans against Arab players (and to a much lesser extent by Arab fans against Jewish players) is a much more complex and deeply rooted problem. It reflects attitudes throughout Israeli society and cannot be divorced from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet we are confident this racism can be eradicated, or at least greatly reduced.”
With two disparate threads running through it, this strain of racism became so virulent that in 2003 the NIF sent undercover monitors to Israeli Premier League games. Their mission was to catalogue every instance of racism and violence. At the end of last season, the NIF drew up a league table ranking teams in order of offences and Beitar Jerusalem, a club with links to the right-wing Likud Party, topped the poll. In May 2003 some of their fans handed out song sheets with explicitly racist lyrics about Arabs. Salim Toameh, a prominent Arab player with Hapoel Tel Aviv, is a particular target. Though he is a Christian, ditties about “Toameh the Terrorist” are often sung at games. “This is the Land of Israel, Toameh,” goes one verse. “This is the Jewish state. I hate you Salim Toameh, I hate all the Arabs.”
Last June, Josef Cohen, a 33-year-old Beitar fan, became the first person convicted of incitement to racism at an Israeli football match. In December 2001, Cohen had been among a group shouting “Death to Arabs” before Beitar’s game against Ironi Ashdod, just after a minute’s silence for a fellow fan killed in a terrorist attack earlier that day.
Cohen said in court: “There was nothing to it, just like you shout ‘Go Beitar’ you shout ‘Death to the Arabs’. There’s no contradiction between the two.”
More convictions have followed, a bill is passing through the Knesset outlawing racist chanting, public funds are being invested to promote tolerance between fans from both sides of the divide. As part of the ongoing effort, David Davies, Brendan Batson and Gary Mabbutt headed a high-powered FA delegation that went to Israel in November to share their experiences of tackling the blight.
Thirty years after the first Arab footballers started playing for Israel’s top teams and were subsequently selected for the national team, Wally Badir (whose grandfather was killed by Israeli troops in the Kafr-Kassem massacre in 1956) and Suan Abbas are two of the latest to bridge the religious gap. A midfielder and captain of the multicultural Bnei Sakhnin side that won the state cup last season, Abbas was still the target of relentless racist chanting from Israeli fans when he came on as a sub for Badir during last month’s friendly against Croatia in Jerusalem.
In terms of confronting the problem, the Israeli Football Association has come a long way in a short time. When Maccabi Netanya’s Itzik Zohar was cited for racially abusing Ziv Kabeda, the first Ethiopian immigrant to play in the league, four years ago, the IFA’s disciplinary committee had to admit they were puzzled. No rules governing such incidents were in place because they had never imagined their players would ever do that. Nobody is that naïve anymore.
Let's build more holocaust museums.