Arab Soccer in Israel

Soccer may contribute to the integration of Arabs as individuals into Israeli society--but it simultaneously blurs their national identity.

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This duality is fully evident in the public discourse on the involvement of Arab teams and players in the Israeli leagues. The potential symbolic power of the soccer game has made it a battleground of meanings: Different social agents try to articulate different meanings based on ideology or interests. These meanings reflect alternative definitions of collective identities for the Arabs in Israel.

Hence, the soccer game in Israel is played on two different levels: The first is on the field, where professional excellence is needed for winning; the second is the broader public sphere, in which power relations between various agents of identity are expressed in the battle over consciousness. The main axis of this battle is the above-mentioned dialectic--an opportunity for integration into Israeli society and acceptance by the Jewish majority versus a stage for promoting national pride. Because there is an inherent tension between these two goals, emphasizing one usually means confronting and challenging the other.

The power relations between the meaning shapers are not equal. The hegemonic meaning produced by the Hebrew media describes soccer as a meritocratic and integrative sphere in which the national identity of the players and spectators is irrelevant. As such, soccer may contribute to the integration of Arabs as individuals into Israeli society. But it simultaneously blurs their national identity.

By way of contrast, most of the Arab sports journalists attempt to emphasize the national identity of the players and clubs, aiming to build around them a sense of national Arab or Palestinian pride. As the same time, if one might make such a broad generalization, the Arab players on the field, the Arab soccer bureaucrats, and the Arab audience in the bleachers tend to adopt the hegemonic interpretation, emphasizing professionalism and the shared experience with the Jewish fans.

Representing Israel, Pride to the Arab Nation

In the evening of May 18, 2004, while Israeli troops stormed Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip in another attempt to crush the Palestinian uprising against the occupation, both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat found time for phone calls concerning trivial issues.

Both leaders called Mazen Ghenayem, the director of Ittihad Abna Sakhnin soccer club, who that evening became the first Arab team to win the Israeli National Cup. Sharon emphasized his confidence that the team would represent Israel in an honorable manner in Europe, while Arafat claimed the team brought pride to the Arab nation.

This dual congratulation, while seemingly paradoxical, was possible because of the peculiar and multifaceted image of Arab soccer in Israel and the attempts by different agents to use it for their political purposes. Furthermore, these attempts are evidence that soccer is not only an "interesting angle" to probe questions of identity; the dominance of soccer in the leisure culture of Arab men in Israel also makes it a central social sphere by itself and should be treated as such.

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Tamir Sorek

Tamir Sorek is Assistant Professor of Israel Studies in the Department of Sociology at the University of Florida.