On March 2nd, Israel will earn the dubious distinction of holding its third election in the calendar year. Since elections for the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in April 2019, the country has been deadlocked, with neither the left nor right-wing able to gain a majority. The balance of power is held by Avigidor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose demands and personality are unworkable for either bloc. But three weeks later, the country will have the opportunity to gain notoriety in a different way. On March 26th, Israel’s national soccer team will attempt to qualify for the European Championships, otherwise known as the Euros, for the first time since they began playing soccer in Europe in the early 1990’s. The team will have to go through first Scotland and then the winner of the Norway-Serbia match; this is a tall order, but closer to a major tournament than they have been in years. However, the connection between soccer and politics in the Jewish state runs deeper than this mere coincidence; the marriage between politics and sport has a complex history since 1948 and lasts to this day.
Beginnings in Asia
The Israeli National Team began in 1948, traveling to the United States and losing its first match to the U.S. Olympic Team 3-1. The team’s trip was intentionally highly nationalistic in nature and emphasized Jewish strength and unity. The coach, Egon Pollack, was a former player on Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish soccer team from the 1920’s and 30’s that was largely considered one of the best clubs in the world at the time. Increased Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine decimated the team, as many of its players moved away. The team was eventually disbanded after the Nazis took over Austria. For a nation and team that began its life in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Pollock was the perfect choice to communicate the message of collective Jewish strength the team hoped to embody.
James Montague, a journalist who writes about soccer and politics in the Middle East, has looked at just how carefully the team’s maiden tour was managed. He points out, for example, that every player was a soldier, specially selected by the government, and many of them were veterans of fighting the Nazis as members of European militaries or resistance forces. Israeli officials emphasized to the players that they should represent the embodiment of the worldwide Jewish community in Israel. Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, saw the trip as an opportunity for the team to demonstrate the viability of a Jewish state to America and especially to American Jews. He was so concerned with how the team presented itself that he forced a player with a Polish last name to change it to a Hebrew one. On the field, the team lost every match, but as far as Israeli officials were concerned, the trip was a massive success. The outpouring of support they received from American Jews convinced them that they had sucsessfully ignited Zionist ferver. In Philadelphia and New York, Jews lined the streets to get a glimpse of the new nation. In Israel, the papers raved about the trip. Israel’s national team, to this day, remains a symbol of Jewish pride – complicating its status as a national symbol in an increasingly diverse country.
After the end of the Arab-Israeli War, Israel began its uneasy membership in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Middle Eastern teams repeatedly boycotted games against Israel, which resulted in Israel making it deep into the first four Asian Cups with minimal effort. To this day, Israel has never played a match against Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, the U.A.E, or Lebanon. This trend came to a head in 1964 when Israel hosted the tournament and most countries simply refused to show up. Israel won the tournament playing only three games. Boycotts affected Israel at the World Cup as well. In 1958, all of Israel’s opponents withdrew, and they were on the cusp of qualifying without playing a game. To avoid this, FIFA made Israel play a playoff against Wales, which Wales won. This issue again manifested itself in 1970 as Israel qualified for its first and only World Cup after playing three games, all against either Australia or New Zealand.
These boycotts did not happen in isolation. Israel fought multiple wars with its neighbors over this time period, and the continuation of the boycotts for decades reflected the geopolitical reality that Israel would likely never be fully recognized by its neighbors. It was clear that even though Israel would become a long term fixture on the world stage, its neighbors for the most part continued steadfast in their strategy of not making the slightest concessions. Playing the Israeli national team would be an implicit recognition that the country exists, and that could not happen.
Israel at the 1970 World Cup
At the 1970 World Cup, Israel drew two games, lost one, and was knocked out in the group stage. Despite the poor results, the 1970 team reflected Israel’s global heritage as well as its global future. The team was managed by Emmanuel Schaeffer, a Holocaust survivor, and also featured the first two players who would go on to play in Europe, Shmuel Rosenthal and Mordechai Spiegler.
When David Ben-Gurion sent the national team to the United States, he wanted Israeli soccer to represent the strength and resilience of Israel not just as a nation, but of the Jewish people worldwide as well. No man better exemplified this ideal than Emmanuel Schaffer. Born in 1923 in Poland, Schaffer escaped the Nazis by fleeing all the way to Kazakhstan, working in a boot factory and sleeping on a park bench. Out of his entire family (his parents and three sisters) he was the only one to see the end of the war. In 1950, after becoming involved in Polish soccer for a time, he moved to Israel and played soccer for seven years. In 1958, Schaffer returned to Germany to attend a prestigious coaching school.
But this was no small decision for Schaeffer, who still deeply mistrusted Germans, especially older ones. His hesitance was reflective of a wider sentiment in Israel, which did not establish diplomatic ties with West Germany until 1965. Feelings of anger were so deep seated among many Israelis that when Israel negotiated an agreement for reparations with West Germany, a full scale riot broke out in the streets of Jerusalem opposing the payments. Just as Schaeffer was able to overcome his misgivings and go to Germany, Israel too began to establish more normal relations with West Germany. After school, Schaffer earned multiple offers to coach in Germany, but he declined, refusing to let his son grow up around Germans after they murdered his whole family. He returned to Israel, and was made head coach of the national team in 1968, leading Israel to a fourth place finish at the Olympics.
Schaffer’s story represented what Israel wanted for itself as a country. It provided him a safe haven after the war and gave him the opportunity not only to travel back to Germany, but to be respected there. Israel gave him a home and sent him to heights he could not have imagined 25 years earlier. The representation of Israel as a country trying to move on to the world stage was not just limited to Schaeffer. The 1970 team also had the first two Israeli players to play abroad. Shmuel Rosenthal, signed for Borussia Monchengladbach in 1972, and Mordechai Spiegler, who signed for Paris FC the same year before moving to Paris Saint-Germain in 1973. Both would end up playing in the North American Soccer League, like many other prominent international footballers at the end of their careers. Spiegler began playing for the Pele-led New York Cosmos of the short-lived North American Soccer League in 1975, and Rosenthal joined the Oakland Stompers in 1978. Even in defeat, this Israeli team was able to pave the way for future Israelis to have high profile international careers.
Removal From the AFC
In 1974, after years of boycotts, three bloody wars with its neighbors, and non-competitive tournaments, the AFC finally removed Israel as a member. The decision solved a number of issues for Israel’s political opponents. They did not want to recognize Israel, but continuing to allow the country a free pass in competitive tournaments would do nothing but bring Israel legitimacy and the Arab soccer teams embarrassment. Removing them allowed the national teams, like their governments, to simply act like Israel did not exist.
After their removal, Israel did not immediately join another federation. They played infrequently, attempting to qualify for the World Cup in both Europe and Oceania, but the team had no success. Finally, in the early 1990s, Israel was admitted as a member of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). But the admission came with a number of challenges – namely, Israel never had the talent necessary to compete at a high level in Europe. They have never qualified for the Euros or the World Cup since their admission to UEFA. However, Israel does put in real effort into their qualification attempts. In the current qualifying rounds for the 2020 European Championship, Israel finished fourth in their group, but will still have an opportunity to compete in the tournament. Because of the new UEFA Nations League format, Israel can still qualify for the tournament if they can win two straight games in March. It is unclear whether this new format will make a substantial difference in Israel’s European prestige. If Israel qualifies for the Euros, it will be the first time anyone can see how they fare in a competitive tournament since joining UEFA more than 20 years ago.
Israel would have had a much better chance of securing World Cup appearances in the AFC. Israel’s turbulent history as a team clearly mirrors the geopolitical situation the country has often found itself in, however, the ehtnic makeup of the team has also been a political hotbed. Even as much time has passed since Israeli’s 1948 American tour, the complexities of the national team seeving as a Jewish a Zionist symbol are more prevelant than ever.
Arab Israeli Players
Throughout the existence of the state, Israel has had a sizable minority of Arabs. Arabs living within Israel are full citizens, carry Israeli passports, vote in Israeli elections, and serve in government. However, they are often margianlized, less wealthy than Jews, and the targets of racism and discrimination. These struggles manifested themselves on the pitch as Arab players rose to prominence.
In 1972, Rifaat Turk became the first Arab to play for the Israeli national team. When Turk became the first prominent Arab player in Israel, he was subject to verbal abuse by fans. In a particularly nasty episode, the fans of Beitar Jurasalem told him that he should be the next “Bassam Shakka”; Shakka, a Palestinian mayor, had his legs amputated after his car was bombed by Jewish extremists. While Beitar may be an extreme example (celebrating, in 2019, their first full year without an organized “death to Arabs” chant), they were not the only abusers. Turk was heckled by fans of his own club, Hapoel Tel Aviv, who told him to “play in Syria”. It was clear that Jewish fans were not going to be very open to Arab players. However, and with Arab players beginning to star more prominently for the national team, Israelis and Arabs were both forced to confront their attitudes head on.
The main issue that challenged Arab Israeli players on the national team was if their success helped the Arab community in Israel. In the view of some Arabs, soccer could be used to whitewash their mistreatment by the Israeli government. Soccer often became an area where Israelis could practice selective integration by elevating Arab players without putting in real effort to help Arab populations as a whole. On a more abstract level, the national team’s status as a Zionist symbol was also fraught with contradictions for Arab players. For example, the Israeli national anthem The Hatikvah, played before every match, is about Jews returning to the land of Israel and claiming it as their own. In the late 1990’s an Arab player, Walid Bdeir, made headlines for his statement that he felt that every player on the national team was equal. This drew angry reactions from members of the Arab press, who felt he could never truly be equal while playing for a team who’s symbols, by definition, exclude Israeli Arabs. By attempting to make the national team apolitical, they said that Bdeir was instead suppressing his Arab identity in a way that was not required of the Jewish players, perpetuating political inequality.
In 2005, this conflict again came to the surface as Israel tried to qualify for the World Cup. An Arab player, Abbas Suwan scored a critical late goal against Ireland. Afterwards, the affectionate cheers from Israeli fans were “He’s Jewish! He’s Jewish!”. Many of these same fans previously rained down vitriolic racial abuses on Suwan during club matches, but when he scored, he became Jewish, truly Israeli. Of course, the implication of this chant was disturbing. If the highest honor an Arab could receive was being Jewish, then that meant in the eyes of these fans, no Arab would never be on the same level as a Jew until they had done something impressive enough to warrant acceptance. But even that acceptance required an erasure of Arab heritage. Many Arab citizens reasoned, like they had in the late 90’s, that Arab success on the national team did nothing but elevate Zionist symbols. Successful Arabs would simply have their identity washed away, allowing Jews to keep ignoring Arabs a whole.
The issue of Arab players in Israeli soccer remains a controversial one even today. In 2014, Beitar Jersualem signed two Muslim players, and their fans reacetd with anger. Two fans went so far as to attempt to set fire to the team’s offices. To this day, the team has not signed an Arab player. Additionally, what makes these incidents so complex, is that Beitar is not some backwater, third rate team. The team plays at the highest level in Israeli soccer, competing in European tournaments frequently. It is a rallying point for much of the Israeli right, and, despite incidents that would destroy a European soccer club, still counts among its fans numerous prominent Israeli politicians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described himself as a supporter of the team. The ex-mayor of Jerusalem and prominent Likud Knesset member Nir Barkat considers himself a supporter. The President of Israel, Likud member Reuven Rivlin, was once the manager of Beitar before entering politics. While the team has tried to curb racist chants, there is still a long way to go. And given the list of high profile supporters the team boasts, there does not seem to be much incentive for the club’s worst behaving fans to change their ways.
The history of the Israeli soccer is a study in how a sport, at the national and domestic level, can represent a country’s identity and politics. Internationally, the Israeli team has been a proxy for the Israeli government, while domestically, the national team has served as an arena for the ethnic tensions that are prevalent in Israeli life. As Arab players continue to star in Israeli soccer, whether or not they can truly be accepted remains a difficult question.