Refusing to play the racism game

Black players in Israeli soccer have been enduring despicable treatment from fans. The time has come for this behavior to end

There’s nothing new in the abuse that opposing soccer fans inflicted on Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Toto Tamuz in Monday’s game against Beitar Jerusalem in the capital’s Teddy Stadium. The shouts of “kushi” (the “n” word), monkey calls, and throwing bananas – black players in Israeli soccer have been enduring this sort of thing ever since they began playing here. Not only foreign players, but Ethiopian Jewish immigrants like Baruch Dego get the treatment. (The Nigerian-born Tamuz was adopted by an Israeli mother at the age 2.)

What is new about this latest outpouring of filth is that Israeli soccer players were moved to rebel against it, to finally say “enough.” The Hapoel Tel Aviv team, backed by the club’s management, announced that the next time they encounter racist expressions directed at their players, they will all walk off the field.

One needn’t be a Hapoel fan to cheer this decision, even if it is not practical to implement (unless they want to suffer a 3-0 technical defeat). There is the famous example of a black player walking off the field after hearing one too many vicious chants: Cameroon superstar Samuel Eto’o, who in 2005 played for Barcelona, left the pitch after the fans of a rival Spanish team pushed him beyond his limit. After a few minutes his teammates persuaded him to return, but his gesture had a dramatic effect on the European game, inspiring other players to speak out against the chants they’d been hearing for so long. Eto’o’s act was a milestone in the continent’s battle against racism in sports.

In the fight against racism, the players must set an example. Platitudes coming from team owners, coaches and commentators have limited effect on the fans; it’s the players they respect and who must serve as role models. The players on and off the field must refuse to tolerate the venomous bigotry with which fans routinely greet dark-skinned and Arab players. They would be in breach of contract to refuse to go on playing the game, but they can make their views heard loud and clear in the media and through educational efforts.

This is one area of focus for the New Israel Fund’s Let’s Kick Racism Out of Israeli Football campaign: encouraging players – Jews and Arabs, black and white — to speak to the fans who adore them, and tell them that the taunts and chants are despicable.

Betar Jerusalem supporters celebrate and dance outside Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)
Beitar Jerusalem supporters celebrate and dance outside Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)

There is so far to go. Tamuz told Yedioth Ahronoth that the monkey calls, the fans’ singing of “their regular song, ‘Give Toto a banana,’” and the shouts of “kushi,” came “from everyone — not just one or two people.”

Tamuz’s Cameroonian teammate, Eric Djemba Djemba, said, “When they call you ‘kushi’… and chant and throw bananas at you, it’s not exactly pleasant. I like this country and I’m happy to be here… but I didn’t know there was anything like this in Israel.”

But why was last week’s racist spectacle different from so many others; why did this one set off such a storm? Because it was Tamuz, the victim of the racist chanting, who was the one who was ultimately punished. After Tamuz scored to put Hapoel up 2-1, he raised his finger to his mouth to shush the fans – and the referee penalized him (!) for unsportsmanlike conduct and sent him off the pitch. Beitar went on to win 3-2.

By the book, the referee’s decision might have been correct. But it showed insensitivity when taking into account the racist treatment that was being dished out to Tamuz. More worrying were reports on the Hebrew sports news website One that the referee’s match summary mentioned that the “monkey chants were not racist but personal,” because Tamuz was an ex-Beitar player who had left for a more successful club. By this logic, if in the English Premier League Yossi Benayoun, who now plays for West Ham, gets called a “dirty Jew” by Liverpool fans because he left for Chelsea, that wouldn’t be racism.

Education can solve the problem in the long term, but a stick is also needed to deal with ad-hoc violations. Referees are empowered by the European Football Association (UEFA) to stop the game if racist chanting persists, and this has been implemented effectively in Holland. Knesset legislation outlaws racist chanting in stadiums, but there have only been limited arrests and convictions. The players deserve better real-time support when the fans get racist, and the authorities have the power to rid us of this scourge.

About the Author
The author is the New Israel Fund's director of communications and the founder of Let's Kick Racism Out of Israeli Football