Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

Sport and Politics, Israel and Others

I need to start this piece with a small personal confession-I am addicted to soccer, yes, my only recognized addiction from age of four years old[will not reveal how many years ago], and then another confession-I have always mixed soccer and politics. It was so because in Israel of old days, sport was politics like everything else, and it was ”we” against ”them”. We-Beitar, They-Hapoel. We -Blue and White, they-Red. What could be more explicitly political in these days than that difference.?. So, in the spirit of the time ,I will add another confession, that of taking my political approach to soccer also to the international scene, and this is why I am always against German teams. Old habit, and it is not going to change. Put Iranian team against a German, and I go for the former. I changed even the aversion to the reds, as I support Arsenal F.C in London, the Reds of the city , but in Israel it is Beitar Yerushalayim-the Menorah is in my heart, BUT it is getting harder to maintain this loyalty. It is not because the team is sub-standard, that is not an issue, but because so many of the fans are racists, yelling anti Arab slogans, objecting to the inclusion of an Arab player in the team. That IS bad, totally reprehensible and against the teachings of the Beitar youth movement, as given to us by the great teacher Ze’ev Jabotinsky. I admit though to a weakness-I just cannot wish ill to my Beitar team. I cannot, as simple as that. I can however wish the best of all to the Israel national soccer team , and I emphasize, the Israel team, not the Jewish team of Israel.

Here is where a story has developed which needs attention, clarification, honesty and precision. Muanes Dabbur from Nazareth, an Israeli Arab , a citizen of the state , is a great soccer player. He plays for a team in the German Bunds league, one of the three best soccer leagues of Europe. He succeeds there as he does in the Israeli team , which was proved when he scored one of the goals in the great victory over Austria 5;2. Playing in Germany is not my cup of tea, but Muanes should not abide by my personal soccer loves and hatreds, and he brings great honor to himself and Israeli soccer in general. Nor does Muanes need to agree with me politically, and me neither with him. He tweeted a line during the Al Aksa riots and BEFORE the mixed cities riots few months ago, in which he cited the Qur’an and the quotation implied that Allah will punish the usurpers, and in the context of the time when Muanes wrote it , it meant punish the Jews. Very bad line when directed against the vast majority of the people of Israel, and most of his teammates.
The storm was not late in coming, and it was NOT a storm in a tea spoon. It was genuine, and I understand and support it. But Muanes
took his time for reflection and he all but retracted the offensive line, though not used the word apology. So, Muanes can be included in the category of Thanks and Leaves Yeruham[be forgiven]. This is an important Jewish value. The Israeli soccer fans [not all] do not think so, and they jeered Muanes even after he scored against Austria. It was bad, and should not have happened and it aroused , of course, a bigger question than the personal predicament of one player. It aroused the question of Jews and Arabs in a mixed team, bigger than that, Jews and Arabs in one state, and in general also the question of politics and sport.

Let me start with the latter, as it is so simple to address it. Sport and politics are intertwined all over the world and not only in Israel, and to mention this is not to suggest that we are in good [bad in fact…] company, so who cares, just to put it in perspective. It exists in the US with the Colin Kaepernick controversy and its implications, and in England where when a black player misses a crucial penalty he is subjected to a torrent of racial abuse. It exists in Germany with its Turkish players and their tweets and other gestures of support to Erdoghan, and it exists in Spain between Catalan and Spanish players and I can go on and on.
Sport arouses deep feelings, among them also nationalist, religious and racial. Sport people, including the super stars are not exempted , and they show on so many occasions what they feel and they are entitled to do so exactly like everybody else, though one might expect role models, whether sport people and/or politicians to show a measure of social responsibility and care for the consequences of their words and deeds. So is the case with Muanes Dabbur , as well as with Jewish soccer players in Israel, some of whom responded not so politely to him , and in most cases also recanted their original statements as he did. So let us move on to the bigger picture and place this incident in the overall context of the conflict .

Jewish as well as Muslim, Druze and Christian sport people have the full right to express themselves about every political issue in terms which match their ethnic and religious background, but they are still bound by the law of the land and state, so the test is IF they violate it or not. Muanes did not violate any law, nor does he not violate any law, when he, like other non-Jewish players does not sing Hatikva before the game starts. He does not have to, and while it may not be a pleasant scene when some players sing and some do not, then it is the reality of what Israel is. Israel is the democratic nation state of the Jewish people, and it is the democratic right of Arabs not to like it maybe, but to accept it nevertheless, and that IS what w the vast majority of them does by accepting the laws of Israel , live by them and participate in the every day life of the entire people, including playing soccer for the national team of the state. All this is easier said and done,so it is why putting the problem in the context of a bigger, international reality as alluded to above helps us coming to grips with it.

So, let us congratulate the Israeli player Muanes Dabbur for his great contribution for the Israeli national soccer team, as well as all the other non-Jewish players, including the team Captain Bibars Natcho. They play for the Israel team, not a Jewish or Arab team and they represent proudly their state Hopefully, the team will do well against the Danish team which is their next game, though the Israeli defense is bad, and the Danish strikers are great.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina