Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Soccer Championship gives Israel chance to show off diversity and multiculturalism

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While Australian soccer fans have been glued to the drama surrounding Australia's qualification for the 2014 Soccer World Cup (Congratulations, Socceroos!), there has been another equally absorbing soccer drama going on in Israel.

Over the past two weeks, Israel hosted the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) Under-21 Soccer Championships in Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Netanya, and Jerusalem. The championship was one of Israel's biggest sporting events in history, and Israel's biggest soccer tournament since joining the UEFA.

After a majority of the UEFA's Executive Committee voted to select Israel to host the championship last year, several pro-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel groups launched a protest against the decision, hoping to humiliate Israel by either removing the tournament or sparking public boycotts of the matches. These groups accused Israel of racism, citing incidents such as the arrest of Palestinian soccer player Omar Abu Rois, who is affiliated with the Hamas terror organisation and was involved in a shooting attack against Israeli soldiers, and the difficulty some Palestinian players have in travelling between Gaza and the West Bank.

International media caught on to these protests, including SBS in Australia, which covered a story from Arab news network Al-Jazeera that highlighted those accusing Israel of racism and apartheid - even while mentioning, "A fifth of those playing in Israel's Football League are Israeli Palestinians" (for last year's piece on multiculturalism in Israeli soccer from AIJAC, click here).

However, in spite of these protests, the UEFA backed its hosting decision confidently.

UEFA head Michel Platini told the Israel Football Association:

"Your association earned the right to host this competition through a fair, democratic vote. I am sure that it will be a beautiful celebration of football that, once again, will bring people together."

And Israel rose to the challenge, displaying the Jewish state's demonstrated ability to bring together people of various races, religions, and nationalities - bridging gaps and making strides towards unity and coexistence.

The 23-member Israeli national team was comprised of Jewish, Arab, Ethiopian, and Russian players, all identifying with their team emblem and the Israeli flag. Israeli-Arab striker Achmad Saba - one of the six Arab players on the squad - explained his identity in simple terms, asserting that he wants to play for Israel, "because I'm an Israeli player." The team members told Ha'aretz that team unity and mutual respect were their first priority. As teammates, they focused on each other's skills and talents - having different backgrounds was irrelevant to their cohesiveness.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended the diverse national team, noting that all parts of the population of Israel had "united to play together on behalf of the country," representing Israel with great honour.

For years, an active Israeli civil society has promoted inclusivity and diversity within Israeli soccer, successfully advocating for measures such as mixing Arab and Jewish players on individual youth teams. During the championship, Israeli and British soccer stars invited a diverse group of local kids to join them at an event called "Football for All," which promoted mutual respect and tolerance both on and off the field. Israel's and Britain's "Kick Out Racism" initiatives partnered together for the event, which was supported by both countries' Football Associations and the New Israel Fund. Miriam Abu-Ghanem, Israel's first-ever Bedouin female sports teacher, spoke highly of the program, telling the Times of Israel that soccer can open doors and bring people together.

In 2009, the national soccer associations of Germany and Israel launched an official agreement of collaboration to help develop their teams. The German national teams visit Israel regularly to play matches with their Israeli counterparts and take part in educational programs, such as visiting Yad Vashem. German U21 players Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Sebastian Rode, and team captain Lewis Holtby told CNN last week that their visit to Israel before the tournament was inspiring, welcoming, and "so different" from the representation of the conflict they see on TV. Holtby said it was a privilege to be able to play in Israel, and Lasogga said he hoped his trip and Yad Vashem visit could help make a difference to ensure the past wouldn't happen again.

BDS and anti-Israel groups who wanted to keep Israel from hosting the tournament not only failed in their goal of politicising sport, but also failed to stop the international football community from seeing the reality of Israeli society and Israeli sport. Israel took full advantage of the honour of hosting the tournament by demonstrating its confidence and capacity for democracy and coexistence.

Jeni Willenzik

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