Let’s Kick Racism out of Israeli Football 200926 March 2009

Israels FARE – Partner “KIO Israel” reports on their work during the Gaza war:

As soon as the fighting in Gaza began in the closing days of 2008, KIO Israel geared up for special activities to use football to help reduce the damage to the fragile coexistence between Israel’s Jewish majority and Arab minority. KIO Israel had already gained experience in this highly sensitive area during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, when Israel’s Jews and Arabs had different perceptions of who was to blame for the war and, we feared that this would spill over to violence between fans. A major campaign at the start of the 2006/07 season entitled “We all share the same pitch” had been highly effective in calming inter-communal tensions.

KIO Israel’s most important achievement during the Gaza conflict was to ensure that Israeli Arab teams were allowed to continue hosting matches. Israel Police announced during the fighting that matches could only be played in Jewish cities, where the risk of violence was lower than in Arab cities. NIF was able to use its close contacts with both Arab soccer clubs and the Israel Police to convince the latter that canceling the games in Arab cities would intensify alienation in the Arab sector, while allowing the games to be played provided an opportunity to show that coexistence is still alive and well. The police reversed their decision and matches in the midst of the conflict took place in Arab cities with exemplary behavior by both Arab and Jewish fans.

KIO Israel also initiated other activities. For example, during the war we distributed a statement by Meir Cohen, the Jewish captain of Arab team Sakhnin, defending the right of free expression for the former Arab chairman of Sakhnin Mazan Ghanaem, and now mayor of the city, who had voiced his opposition to the war.

All this comes against a backdrop of reduced racism at Israeli football matches. NIF observers reported a dramatic reduction in racist and violent incidents at matches during the 2007-08 season. There was an overall 59 percent decrease in racist and violent incidents compared to the previous year. This decrease included a 40 percent decline in racist incidents such as chanting “Death to Arabs,” while “monkey” chants directed at black players were down by 68 percent. This was the fifth consecutive season that NIF has monitored the behavior of Israeli soccer fans.

When the campaign to reduce racism in Israeli society through football began, there was a fatalistic approach to the blatant racism heard each week in the country’s stadiums. KIO Israel has put the topic of racism in general high up on Israel’s public agenda.

The reduction is in part due to new legislation outlawing racism at matches – legislation on which NIF acted as a consultant.The 2007/08 season also saw more and more organizations partnering with NIF in efforts to combat racism in football. These included the Ministry of Education, Police, Israel Football Association, Israel Players Association, the clubs, and NGOs such as the State of Football, which promotes multi-ethnic soccer tournaments.

KIO Israel’s flagship activity revolves around a team of 70 observers from all walks of Israeli life who love both football and human rights. They attend Israel Premier League matches each weekend and report on incidents of racism and violent behavior. From their reports an index is compiled ranking the behavior of each team’s fans which is regularly published in Israel’s media.

At various stages of the season prizes are presented to the best-behaved fans. At the beginning of March the fans of Bnei Yehuda received a prize for being the best-behaved fans in the first half of the season. Bnei Yehuda captain Asi Baldut said. “Ten years ago our supporters were problematic. Now they are the best in the league.”

At the start of the 2008/09 season a new blog was launched with blogs from journalists, public figures, NIF volunteers etc. about their positive and negative experiences at football matches.

Continuing a successful series of encounters that began last season fans of Jewish clubs visit the Arab city of Sakhnin and play friendly matches (without referees) at Bnei Sakhnin’s Doha Stadium.

Educational Activities
This will involve panel discussions on racism in football in cities around Israel involving popular players, celebrities and public figures and led by well-known MCs. The discussions will be open to the public and with the chance to meet famous players the events will draw many fans, many of them impressionable youth. The events will be arranged in cooperation with municipalities, clubs and the Israel FA.