This article was written for the Football Rascal blog.
“Mavet la ‘aravim” is Hebrew for “Death to Arabs” and is regularly chanted at football grounds throughout Israel. It was recently recorded being sung by some fans after a Beitar Jerusalem victory before the same fans turned on a couple of Palestinian men and attacked them.
A few days later an off duty Israeli soldier in Jerusalem approached me in the street and struck up a conversation about Israeli and European football. He was keen to talk to me about how Israeli football was developing on an international stage. The conversation soured slightly when I asked him what he thought about these ‘Death to Arabs’ chants. His first response hinted at a wider problem, “come on man, those fans are crazy”. He swiftly turned the conversation to why Benayoun was not starting for Arsenal and extolling the virtues of keeping him as captain of their national team. I tried my luck and once more asked him why this one specific chant is so prolific. He responded bluntly, “Look, it is not nice but it is no worse than what is sung in football stadiums throughout Europe”. Sadly, I know this to be true.
The incident to which I refer was caught on video and shows a few hundred Beitar Jerusalem supporters singing loudly in a shopping mall before the incident escalates. It was reported inHaaretz that some of the fans started to spit at 3 Arab women who were with their children close by. Some men stepped in to help and chased the football fans away but were then turned on themselves and were severally beaten.
One shop owner described the assault saying, “They caught some of them and beat the hell out of them…They hurled people into shops, and smashed them against shop windows”.
The soldier, who asked not to be named, went on to argue that this sort of hatred was a reflection of ‘mindless soccer culture’ and does not represent the views of the majority of Israelis. Although I am sure that this statement holds an element of truth, it misses an undeniable fact that the discrimination that Palestinian Arabs face within Israel is systemic in its nature.
The Mossawa Centre summarizes the situation of Palestinian Arabs (who make up about 20% of the Israeli population) when they say, “the Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel faces direct and indirect discrimination in all aspects of political social and economic life”. In 2011 alone the Coalition against Racism [In Israel] reported that there were 35 pieces of discriminatory legislation in the Knesset, 60 cases of racism committed by elected representatives in Israel and 58 cases of racism committed by the Israeli Army.
The soldier’s assertion that we can write off football chants simply as a reflection of a moronic minority sadly holds a lot of weight in the UK as well as in Israel. Chants, however moronic, do not occur completely out of a social context though. When we hear disgusting racist, homophobic or even anti-Semitic chants on our terraces in the UK they are framed by an undeniable persistence of these problems in our society. The biggest mistake we can make is to pretend that we do not have these problems. Like an alcoholic, the nature of our problem has numbed our ability to spot the problem in itself. We have developed a culture that laughs off problems that when analysed in the cold light of day hold little humour. To acknowledge the nature and severity of the problem is to take our first steps to recovery.
In the UK racism is too often talked about in the past tense as something that John Barnes had to endure back in the ‘bad old days’ (if this season has taught us anything, it is that racism is still alive in British football). There is nothing special about the ‘type of discrimination’ you find inside football stadiums compared to ‘real life’. The only thing that makes a stadium’s terrace unique is that it can shine a light on a problem which would otherwise lurk in the shadows of society. The sooner we face up to this reality the better.
In Israel we have seen a series of grass-roots initiatives to voice opposition the recent attack and disgraceful chanting. I would suggest however, that the real challenge for Israeli society is to acknowledge the severity of the underlying causes for such chants. The ‘Death to Arabs’ chant (as far as I am aware) is uniquely Israeli but how we tackle prejudice and hatred highlighted through football chants is a universal one. In Israel, I cannot swallow the argument that these chants were just ‘a small moronic minority’ of football supporters – it is clear that this prejudice sits much much deeper. Equally, in the UK I do not accept that we have ‘kicked racism out of football’ any more than we have out of our communities in general.