Soccer is the most popular sport in Israel. As such, it is also a strategic research site in which to study Israeli society and its complex social and ethnic relations. One of the more interesting phenomena in Israeli soccer is the participation of Arab soccer teams and Arab soccer players in the Israeli major league, which has won increasing scholarly attention in recent years. This essay examines the media coverage of these players, focusing on the tension between the opportunity for positive exposure of successful athletes on the one hand and the difficulty of these players to advance issues that are important to their minority group on the other hand.
Arab soccer players are an inseparable part of the Israeli Arab public. Most Jews hold hostile views toward the Arab minority, and even official rhetoric often portrays them mainly as a security and demographical threat. During the late 1990s and the 2000s three Arab teams advanced to the major Israeli soccer league (Hpoel Taibe, Maccabi Akhi Nazareth, and Bnei Sakhnin), and between 15 and 30 Arab players have managed to join major soccer league teams (both Arab and Jewish). While sport provides ethnic minorities with high visibility, research shows that this is also a field where biased representation is highly prevalent. Still, in Israel, like elsewhere, sport is one of the few fields in which the Arab minority receives media exposure of any kind. It therefore has the potential to provide a rare opportunity for bringing the voice of minority groups and expressing their concerns.
Within the sociology of sport, there are two opposing theoretical views regarding the integration of minority groups in sport. The first sees sport as a field that brings together different groups in society and bridges class, ethnic, and racial divides. In this view, minority sport stars serve both as role models for young people from their ethnic groups and as a mouthpiece voicing the feelings and needs of their own people, thus giving hope to their groups and advancing their status. The opposing view holds that the sport field reflects the tendencies of the larger society, helping to maintain the social dominance of the hegemonic groups. In this view sport stars serve mostly as tokens and have no real influence on the social order.
Examining the media coverage of Arabs in Israeli sport over the last decade puts this dichotomy into question. On the one hand, Arab athletes do receive a rare opportunity for positive exposure, stressing their athletic abilities and successes in a non-threatening environment. Jewish and Arab athletes receive a rare opportunity to interact with each other, develop friendships, and be exposed to the ideas and adversities of the other group. The Hebrew media encourages these interactions, praising what many reporters see as a model for Arab-Jewish coexistence.
On the other hand, following the media coverage of Arab athletes reveals a very unilateral perception of coexistence and the way it is to be achieved. In this vision, the Arab minority is expected to relinquish, or at times even denounce, its national identity and cultural heritage, and the success of coexistence is portrayed as if it were entirely dependent on the efforts and transition of the Palestinian side. Palestinian athletes are demanded to constantly prove themselves, adopt the Jewish culture and the Hebrew language, and suppress signs of cultural uniqueness, alternative national identities, or political aspirations and opinions.
Furthermore, the expressions and behaviors of Israeli Palestinian soccer players are consistently policed and silenced by the Jewish-dominated media discourse, effectively blocking one of the few channels of expression for the Arab public in Israel. When Arab players express a consensual vision of coexistence and assimilation, they are enthusiastically commended for it. However, when they talk about their hybrid Israeli-Palestinian identity and bring forward the demands of the Arab public, they are scolded and silenced. Both journalists and Internet surfers cite the importance of keeping “clean sports” separate form “dirty politics” and demand that the players cease bringing up issues about which they “know nothing” or “have no moral authority to talk.” These silencing practices are effective in making the Palestinian players highly cautious and largely prevent them from voicing the opinions and adversities of Israeli Arab public.
While contentious political statements by Jewish athletes are either ignored, or frowned upon but dismissed as insignificant, political expressions coming from Arab players are heavily policed and silenced by the Hebrew media. This policing may explain the rarity of political expressions by Palestinian soccer players. In most of the interviews with them, the players make noticeable efforts to avoid or bypass the reporters’ attempts to “drag them into talking politics.” They often claim to have no opinion or pay tribute to the common view that sports stars should not talk about political issues, because they do not know enough about these issues.
The one exception to the no-politics rule is the “coexistence talk.” Positive statements that praise Arab-Jewish coexistence and talk about the contribution of sports to this coexistence are gladly cited and highly commended by Jewish media and public figures. Such non-controversial expressions are very prevalent in interviews with Arab players. Publicists and journalists see such expressions as a show of good will and use them to “prove” the claim that coexistence actually depends first and foremost on the willingness of the Arab minority to blend in. Only in very few cases the no-politics rule is breached and Palestinian players dare talk about sensitive political issues and criticize Israeli policies toward the Palestinian minority. In these cases sports managers, journalists, and fans line up to denounce the player and make sure that he is aware of his breach and regrets it. They reproach him for steering up strife and demand that he renounce his “divisive statements” and express his “loyalty” to Israel.
Interestingly, while the Arab players cannot cash in on their success and are forced to stay away from political issues, the Jewish journalists and publicists do cash in on the success of Arab players and teams. This success, as well as the very participation of Arab athletes and teams in Israeli sports, is exploited to boost a desirable political image of Israel as an egalitarian society. Thus, while the Palestinians are not allowed to mix sport and politics and complain about discrimination, Jewish speakers do mix the two spheres in order to “prove” that discrimination does not exist.
In conclusion, while sport certainly has the potential of bringing the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel closer together, in most cases this potential remains unfulfilled. Arab soccer players are largely unable to bring any real issues and concerns to public debate, as their political speech is heavily criticized, especially when it is not in line with the ideal picture of coexistence.
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Arab soccer players are an inseparable part of the Israeli Arab public.