Football has the power to unite across religious and political divides, and Israel’s national team is the good example of what the country could be.
This Israeli national side isn’t very good, but regardless of the lack of talent, it has plenty of players from minority communities and they work harmoniously.
Take Bibras Natkho, a Circassian-Israeli and Muslim, who is the captain, or Beram Kayal, one of the best players on the team, who is a Muslim , and has the same birthday as his good friend Tomer Hemed, who is Jewish.
Other team members include Taleb Tawatha, a Muslim Israeli of Bedouin background, with Sudanese citizenship, Dia Saba, a Muslim Israeli-Arab, and cousin of former player Ahmad Saba’a. While Recent call ups include Israeli-Arab players Ayid Habshi, Moanes Dabour, Mohammed Awaed, Mahmmoud Kanadil and Loai Taha.
Not only is there a proud tradition of Arab-Israelis playing for the national side, but there is a burgeoning new generation pushing through as well, and to that end, it’s no coincidence Israel played Albania on Sunday night in Be’erseva; the home of the main one of the main Arab teams in the top league.
There are many players from North African descent, Mizrahi and Sephardi backgrounds, and Eli Dasa is from an Ethiopian Jewish family. Mixed with Israeli Arabs and Jews, there are Jewish players with background in Ukraine, South Africa, Cyprus and elsewhere.
It’s an extremely diverse squad, and it’s one of the few places in Israeli society, where all communities
There is also a powerful individual story with Ariel Harush, the goalkeeper. He was mercilessly abused by his own racist ‘fans’ at Beitar Jerusalem, after standing by the side of two Muslim players, who were racially and religiously abused by supporters. Israeli football, like Israeli society, has its problems. The fact Harush had to defend those Muslim players shows there is a problem. But he did do the right thing, when others stood by.
Other issues include access to facilities for Israelis & Palestinians, funding, and the simple fact, that many communities wouldn’t mix. But fundamentally this side is a good news story in a bleak time.
A few months ago, Prince William travelled to Israel and the West Bank. During his visit, he saw the work of the Equaliser programme in Tel Aviv, which gets kids from all backgrounds and gives them a chance to play football, and he listened to them speak about it having ‘changed their lives’.
Tomer Hemed and Beram Kamal encapsulate this potential for coexistence. The two have a long-running friendship and partnership on the field, playing together at Maccabi Haifa, then Brighton and Hove Albion, and currently for Israel. Their children are friends, and when Jewish News interviewed them earlier this year, they spoke candidly about how they came up through the age groups together.
Israel is a melting pot, and it has many complex problems, often centred around religion and ethnicity – but football is a success story, and it could be a blueprint for other parts of society.
It works, because participation is more important than politics and identity. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. And it’s effective, because the seeds of co-operation are planted at a young and impressionable age: with youth.
The model that football gives integration and co-operation, not to mention opportunity for all, should be fully backed, regardless of your politics, and rolled out more widely, across Israel.
Give football a chance to end this cycle of mistrust and violence.