Arab Soccer in Israel
Soccer may contribute to the integration of Arabs as individuals into Israeli society--but it simultaneously blurs their national identity.
As part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the state of Israel in 1998, the Israeli Broadcast Authority produced a television series called T'kuma [Revival]. The section about the Arab Palestinian citizens of the state opened with a black-and-white clip of a soccer match, showing Rif'at Turk, a famous star and former member of the Israeli National Team, scoring a goal for Hapoel Tel Aviv. The choice of soccer as a starting point for the discussion about Arabs in Israel is no coincidence, but rather stems from the unique status of the game in Arab-Jewish relations.
On the one hand, this choice reflects the relative convenience for Israeli Jews in dealing with Arab citizens as athletes, rather than in any other social role. In sharp contrast to the discriminative character of most Israeli institutions, the integration of Arab soccer teams and players into the Israeli leagues, and their relative success in them, enables the portrayal of Israel as a liberal society impartial to the players' ethnic or national identities.
On the other hand, the choice reflects the relative convenience of soccer for Arab citizens in channeling their social aspirations. The Palestinian citizens of Israel have learned to create imaginary social wedges between different spheres of life; these boundaries and distinctions aim to relieve the tension created by the contradictory expectations stemming from their identities as Palestinians by nationality and Israelis by citizenship.
In this context, sports in general--and soccer in particular--is constructed as an integrative arena, where a sense of "normal citizenship" is created, albeit bounded by space and time.
The most popular sport in Israel, by number of spectators, television ratings, and money involved, is soccer. The last two decades of the twentieth century saw a marked rise in the number of Arab teams playing in the Israeli soccer leagues. In the 1976-77 season, only eight Arab teams played in the top four leagues. In 1992, twenty-one Arab teams were playing in those leagues, and by 2001, that number had almost doubled to forty teams. The percentages of Arab teams in these leagues grew from 7 percent in 1977 to 35 percent in 2001.
The Arab teams' achievements are even more striking when taking into account the strong correlation between the size of a team's hometown and its representation in the higher divisions. Because the Arabs in Israel are spread out in settlements smaller than those of the Jews, the starting point from which they must climb to the senior divisions is lower.