Sheldon Kirshner
Sheldon Kirshner

A Common Goal

Arabs comprise 21 percent of Israel’s population, yet almost half of the players on the Israeli national soccer team are Arabs. Shuki Guzik’s interesting 52-minute documentary, A Common Goal, examines this curious phenomenon. It will be screened online by the Calgary Jewish Film Festival on November 17 at 7 p.m. The festival, now in its 21st year, is sponsored by Beth Tzedec Congregation.

Guzik follows the club as it attempts to qualify for the 2020 European championship, which was eventually postponed and rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Israeli squad, coached by an Austrian, played against Slovenia, Austria, Latvia, Poland and North Macedonia. Israel compiled a relatively respectable record in these matches.

The film focuses on three of the Arab players.

Beram Kayal plays professionally for a Premier League team in Britain. Moanes Dabbur is the top scorer in the Austrian League. Bibras Natcho plays in the Greek Super League. They were all born and raised in Arab towns in Israel.

“We represent the Arab sector and the country,” says Kayal in fluent and idiomatic Hebrew. As an Arab, his “every word and move is scrutinized,” he adds.

Bibras, a Circassian, is a trailblazer, being the team’s first Muslim captain. At games, he does not sing the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, because he cannot identify with its overt Jewish references. Yet he appears to identify as an Israeli. His father was a commander in the Border Police.

Bibras’ outlook is not uncommon among Israeli Arabs, the descendants of Palestinian Arabs who remained in the newly-formed state of Israel during and after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Israeli Arabs and Jews theoretically enjoy equal rights, but in practice Arabs are the victims of prejudice and discrimination in such fields as employment, housing and education.

Guzik skims over this contentious  issue, assuming that viewers possesses sufficient knowledge and understanding of it. Guzik, however, discloses that the first Arab captain of the team, Rifaat “Jimmy” Turk, was not appointed until 1976.

For the past 30 years, there have been an average of two Arab players on the team. Racial slurs are and have been directed against some of them by bigoted Jewish fans. At other times, they have not beengiven due credit for fine performances. In a brief clip, the then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, phones to congratulate a Jewish player. He does not bother calling an Arab player who acquitted himself very well in the same game.

Arab players must contend with another problem. They’re regarded as traitors and “Zionists” by some soccer fans and officials in the Arab world.

Yet Jewish and Arab players on the team have formed seemingly genuine friendships, as exemplified by the bond between Tomer Hemed and Dabbur and their respective families.

A Common Goal sheds light on a little-known dimension of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel, but it could have dug a little deeper and provided viewers with a better understanding of it.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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