UF researcher: Soccer emerges as significant political force in Israel
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Arab-Israeli conflict softens considerably between the goals of a soccer field, according to a new book by a University of Florida researcher, which finds that Arab fans in the Jewish state often cheer players in Hebrew and vote for Zionist candidates for political office.
“Ethnic and national distinctions between Jews and Arabs blur in the soccer arena,” said Tamir Sorek, a UF professor in sociology and Jewish studies who is author of the new book “Arab Soccer in a Jewish State,” published by Cambridge University Press. “Arabs who are spectators in the stadium are much more integrated into Israeli society.”
Sorek found that Arab soccer fans are more likely than non-soccer fans to vote for Zionist political candidates, a vote that is incompatible with their own interests. For example, among those who attended at least one soccer game, 64 percent said they intended to vote for the Zionist candidate in the 1999 election for Israeli prime minister compared with 27 percent who did not go to soccer games at all, he said.
Sorek’s book is based on research he began in 1998 while a graduate student at Hebrew University. He surveyed 173 males between the ages of 16 and 40 and interviewed a separate set of 448 men aged 18 to 50 who make up a representative sample of Israel’s Arab population. Participants were asked about their sports preferences, degree of involvement in soccer and their voting intentions regarding political candidates.
His research involved Arab citizens of Israel, not Palestinians in the occupied territories.
“Despite these surprising findings, there is no evidence yet that integration in soccer contributes to the Arabs’ acceptance by the Jewish majority as citizens with equal rights,” Sorek said. “Arabs face discrimination in matters of government budgets, employment opportunities and prospects for development of their towns and villages. Deep involvement in the soccer arena, however, seems to dull their feelings of discrimination.”
Arab fans in the bleachers show solidarity with Jews by cursing and cheering their team in Hebrew, Sorek said. They also demonstrate their team spirit by wearing scarves printed in Hebrew and buying bumper stickers in the language, he said.
Sorek said he would have expected Arab-Palestinian displays of national identity in the stadium based on the experience of other minorities. At the very least, these groups bring their flags to soccer games and in extreme cases turn stadiums into sites of political protest, as with the Athletic Bilbao team representing Spain’s Basque minority and the Sporting Youth of Kabylia Club in Algeria serving as a rallying point for the Amazigh ethno-nationalist cultural movement, he said.
“Surprisingly, despite the significance Arab men in Israel give to sports and especially to soccer, the soccer field is far from being a site for political resistance or explicit national identification,” he said.
Even at games played while there were nationalist tensions, the fans refrained from waving their flags, Sorek said. “They know the Jewish Israeli interpret the Palestinian flag as a defiant act of political protest and as something directed against them,” he said.
His research also showed that Arab municipalities were much more likely than their Jewish counterparts to give money to soccer clubs. Sorek said he believes the main reason for Arab municipalities’ strong support is their aspiration for further integration in Israeli society.
“In the soccer sphere they have the opportunity to feel as equal citizens because they are not judged by their ethnicity, religion or national identity as Palestinians,” he said. “They even represent Israel in international competitions.”
Sorek, who grew up Jewish in Israel playing soccer with Arab teams, said the idea for the study came from observing the large number of soccer players who were Arab. Although Arabs represent only 16 percent of the country’s population, they make up 36 percent of the Israeli Football Association, he said.
“Although soccer provides excellent opportunities to reduce the social distance between Jews and Arabs in Israel, it is far from being a cure for their troubled relationship,” he said. “For that to happen, the Israeli state should first change its policy toward its Arab citizens.”