Israeli MP drafts legislation obliging players to recognize Israel as a Jewish state

Pro­posed leg­is­la­tion by extreme nation­al­ist Israeli par­lia­men­tar­i­an Michael Ben-Ari that would require mem­bers of Israeli nation­al sport teams to sing the nation­al anthem and recog­nise Israel as a Jew­ish state threat­ens to weak­en the country’s soc­cer team and fur­ther iso­late Israel inter­na­tion­al­ly.

Mr. Ben-Ari, a mem­ber of the far-right Nation­al Union, who is wide­ly seen as hav­ing inher­it­ed the man­tle of Rab­bi Meir Kahane, the assas­si­nat­ed racist leader of the Jew­ish Defence League, tabled his pro­pos­al as the Knes­set, the Israeli par­lia­ment, returned from a three-month recess.

The pro­posed bill is part of a slew of nation­al­ist leg­is­la­tion on the Knesset’s agen­da that includes a draft law tabled by For­eign Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieberman’s Yis­rael Beit­einu (Israel is our Home) Par­ty that would make a com­mit­ment to Israel and its Jew­ish char­ac­ter a con­di­tion for cit­i­zen­ship.

An esti­mat­ed 20 per cent of Israelis are Pales­tini­ans who are large­ly com­mit­ted to the exis­tence of the state, but feel that it dis­crim­i­nates against non-Jews and that empha­siz­ing its Jew­ish char­ac­ter is intend­ed to exclude them. Mr. Ben-Ari’s pro­pos­al as well as oth­er draft leg­is­la­tion is cer­tain to reaf­firm that sense.

Mr. Ben-Ari’s pro­pos­al is in line with Prime Min­is­ter Benyamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Pales­tini­ans recog­nise Israel as a Jew­ish state as part of any Israeli-Pales­tin­ian peace set­tle­ment.

The demand, root­ed in an Israeli desire to impose recog­ni­tion of the Jews’ his­toric right to set­tle Pales­tine and block recog­ni­tion of Pales­tin­ian rights to return to lands with­in Israel’s pre-1967 bor­ders, goes far beyond ear­li­er Israeli demands for recog­ni­tion of Israel as a state. That recog­ni­tion by the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Organ­i­sa­tion and the Pales­tine Author­i­ty formed the basis for the last two decades of failed Israeli-Pales­tin­ian peace talks.

Mr. Ben-Ari’s pro­pos­al, which has sparked intense debate in Israel, would con­trast stark­ly with accept­ed prac­tice in soc­cer pow­er­hous­es such as Ger­many and France. Immi­grant and for­eign play­ers in the French and Ger­man nation­al teams often refrain from singing their team’s nation­al anthem. Ger­man nation­al team coach Joachim has Low not­ed that the play­ers iden­ti­fy with Ger­many as much as they do with their her­itage.

If adopt­ed Mr. Ben-Ari’s law would mean that the three Israeli Pales­tin­ian mem­bers of the 21-man nation­al soc­cer team – Beram Kay­al, Taleb Twait­ha and Ali Ottman – would with­draw.

In a sting­ing com­men­tary in the lib­er­al Israeli dai­ly Haaretz enti­tled ‘Sport and Racism / Hatik­va ueber alles?’ – a word play on the Israel nation­al anthem and the Ger­man anthem at the time of the Nazis — promi­nent Israeli sports writer Uzi Dann warned that Mr. Ben-Ari’s pro­pos­al “is as sur­re­al as it is dan­ger­ous. The sec­ond part of Ben-Ari’s pro­pos­al — that Israeli Arabs play­ers be forced to sign an oath of alle­giance — is the epit­o­me of fas­cism.”

Mr. Dann not­ed that “to demand that Beram Kay­al sing ‘The Land of Zion and Jerusalem’ is ridicu­lous; to insist that Taleb Twati­ha joins in when his team­mates sing about the yearn­ing of the Jew­ish spir­it is a cheek; and to force Ali Ottman to mum­ble some­thing about being a free nation in our land is an own goal.”

The jour­nal­ist went on to say that “once, we could be sure that such sur­re­al pro­pos­als were thrown onto the par­lia­men­tary garbage heap. Today, how­ev­er, any­thing is pos­si­ble. If Ben-Ari’s bill becomes law, Israel, which once took pride in the sep­a­ra­tion of sports and pol­i­tics, will be the only coun­try on earth with such a dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and racist law. And soc­cer is one of the areas in which the author­i­ties have made a gen­uine effort to incul­cate equal­i­ty among all Israeli cit­i­zens.”

If adopt­ed, Israel would like­ly be sanc­tioned by world soc­cer body FIFA and Euro­pean soc­cer body UEFA – Israel plays since 1994 in Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tions after it was boot­ed out of the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion (AFC) sev­er­al years ear­li­er because Mid­dle East­ern teams refused to play against it – and would like­ly face legal chal­lenges in the Court of Arbi­tra­tion for Sport (CAS).

“That’s all we need. But the point here … is that the nation­al team needs its Israeli Arab play­ers more than they need the nation­al team. Israel depends on them and relies on them and is a far worse team with­out them. Not only is Ben-Ari a racist, he’s dam­ag­ing the nation­al team,” Mr. Dann said.

The impor­tance of Pales­tin­ian play­ers was dri­ven home to Israelis in 2005 when Abbas Suan, a devout Mus­lim who refused to sing the Hatik­va before a game, achieved for a brief moment what politi­cians in more than a half-cen­tu­ry had not: he unit­ed Israeli Jews and Arabs by secur­ing with a last minute equal­iz­er against Ire­land Israel’s first chance in 35 years to qual­i­fy for a world cup. The game earned him the nick­name The Equal­iz­er and made him an Israeli hero; his cheery face and toothy smile fea­tured in ads for the state lot­tery.

That sense of uni­ty was short-lived. When Suan set foot on the pitch in Israel a week lat­er as cap­tain of Bnei Sakhnin, an Israeli Arab team, Jew­ish fans of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most nation­al­is­tic club, booed him every time he touched the ball. “Suan, You Don’t Rep­re­sent US,” blared a giant ban­ner in the sta­di­um. Fans shout­ed, “We hate all Arabs.”

Mr. Suan, an advo­cate of Israeli-Pales­tin­ian rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, an inde­pen­dent Pales­tin­ian state and a solu­tion for Pales­tin­ian demands to recov­er land and homes lost when Israel was found­ed, took the insults in his stride. “I ignore them,” he insist­ed. “They’re not worth my atten­tion. They por­tray me as an Arab in a Jew­ish coun­try. They try to put me in one group, but I rep­re­sent both.”

Mr. Suan’s Beit Sakhnin is a sto­ry in itself. So is that of Beitar Jerusalem. Togeth­er their sto­ries chart the fault line between Israelis and Pales­tini­ans. Beit Sakhnin is a mod­el of coex­is­tence: a major­i­ty of Israeli Arabs with some Jews and for­eign­ers.

The club, the first Israel-Arab team to become an Israeli cham­pi­on, and Mr. Suan did won­ders for Arab pride and self-con­fi­dence. They also spot­light­ed the divi­sions in Israeli and Arab soci­ety. “Our prob­lem is that the Arabs say we are trai­tors and Israelis think we are Arabs,” said Pales­tin­ian build­ing con­trac­tor Mazen Ghaneim and for­mer Bnei Sakhnin chair­man.

Bnei Sakhnin’s suc­cess has nonethe­less enabled it to build bridges where heads of state and diplo­mats have failed. It won the club fund­ing from oil-rich Qatar to build its own sta­di­um, the Arab world’s only direct invest­ment in Israel, and prompt­ed Arabs from coun­tries for­mal­ly at war with the Jew­ish state to defy bans on trav­el to Israel to attend the team’s match­es.

Beitar Jerusalem’s match­es often resem­ble a Mid­dle East­ern bat­tle­field. It’s most­ly Sephardic fans of Mid­dle East­ern and North African ori­gin rev­el in their sta­tus as the bad boys of Israeli soc­cer. Their dis­like of Ashke­nazi Jews of East Euro­pean extrac­tion rivals their dis­dain for Pales­tini­ans.

Sup­port­ed by Israeli right wing lead­ers such as Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revan­chist Zion­ist youth move­ment. Its found­ing play­ers active­ly resist­ed the pre-state British man­date author­i­ties. Its fans shocked Israelis when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assas­si­nat­ed Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin, who ini­ti­at­ed the first peace nego­ti­a­tions with the Pales­tini­ans.

Beitar’s war reach­es a fever­ish pitch when the team plays Bnei Sakhnin. Fans chant racist, anti-Arab songs and denounce the Prophet Mohammed. In response, Beit Sakhnin’s pre­dom­i­nant­ly Pales­tin­ian fans sing Islam­ic and anti-Israeli chants. The out­bursts have prompt­ed the Israeli Foot­ball Asso­ci­a­tion to become the Mid­dle East’s only gov­ern­ing soc­cer body to launch a cam­paign against racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion and made Israel the only nation in the region to have charged fans with shout­ing racist remarks.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.