In 20th century America, sports became the great equalizer, a chance for athletes to meet in a context outside of inequality, away from discrimination.
But meeting that lofty goal required sportsmen and women to break down barriers, to convince the public through deed, and sometimes word, of their worth and ability. It also required teams and owners and facilitators, who enabled integration and discouraged racism in the stands, among fans.
As World Cup 2010 frenzy begins, turn, for a moment, to an unlikely Jackie Robinson in a Diadora jacket, bouncing a soccer ball on his knee.
In the north of Israel there is a man, and a team behind him, who has spent the better part of the last decade showing Israeli Jews that their Arab fellow citizens are worthy teammates. In so doing he highlighted the discrimination they experience day to day.
Abbas Suan, Arab Israeli. Unlikely hero of Israel.
In the Galilee, there is a dusty little village called Sakhnin, where the roads are not all paved. For years the kids from Sakhnin, Israeli Arabs all, were hemmed in – constrained by the upper-middle-class Israeli suburbs that surround it, by the army outpost just outside it, and by the expectations, or lack thereof, for Israeli Arab citizens of Israel.
All that was true, and, in truth, it remains true. But the status of the town shifted when Abbas Suan, a son of the town, picked up a soccer ball on a muddy pitch and changed, if for a moment, the way the country sees its minority citizens.
In a country where soccer is watched by all, men and women, Muslim and Christian and Jew – the game has a chance to show Israelis and Palestinians alike what the future of the Middle East could look like.
Scrappy B'nei Sakhnin, the town's team, is filled with a mix of players – Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian. Helmed by a Jewish coach who encouraged his players to see each other as brothers, the underfunded club won the Israeli national football title in 2004, a Hoosiers moment that surpassed all underdog expectations, and brought Sakhnin and Abbas Suan onto the international stage. The team had no proper training field and, for years, no proper stadium. In 2005, Abbas Suan, a midfielder and B'nei Sakhnin's captain, was drafted to play for Israeli national team. Suan was one of two Israeli Arab players who would play on behalf of the Jewish State. There were some not ready to see him on that pitch, those who shouted him down. "Abbas Suan," they yelled, "you don't represent us." Or they made cruel taunts, rhyming his name with the Hebrew word for "cancer." But it was Suan who scored a goal against Ireland that kept Israel in World Cup contention for the first time.
"Thanks to the Arab players on the national team, many countries around the world know there is a minority of Arabic people inside this country," Mazen Ghanaim, the owner of B'nei Sakhnin, told me over hummus and pita at a restaurant in the town when I visited in December 2005. "Soccer is a bridge. It's a motor. But peace and coexistence is done with two sides and not with one side."
We in this country can finally see the imperfect fairy tale of Sakhnin, just in time for the soccer craze that begins as fans the world over gear up for the joy and tragedy experienced in 90-minute intervals when the World Cup begins June 11. "After the Cup," a documentary directed by Christopher Browne, premiered in New York last Friday and soon will be released nationally. The filmmakers came to Sakhnin thinking they would capture a moment and ended up staying 18 months, watching the club struggle with the limelight and the pressure of upholding a symbol of coexistence for an entire region.
In 2005, I had the opportunity to visit Sakhnin, and to travel across Israel talking to Israeli players and Israeli Arab players and soccer commentators. I also had the chance to learn exactly what it meant to have a gibbur – a hero – of Israel be an Arab.
To understand the context for Sakhnin's miraculous win – and Abbas Suan's all-important goal – we need a quick backgrounder. In 1948, when the State of Israel declared independence, 160,000 Arabs remained inside the new state. This minority – now about 1.4 million – has had, to say the least, an uncomfortable time of it. While officially they enjoy full equality, in reality they are discriminated against, and not fully integrated into Israeli society. And when terrorists hit targets in Israel – as one did the very day I sat with Abbas Suan – the Israeli Arabs, though they are not responsible, feel the impact of all the anger and anxiety and, yes, hate, that reverberates through Israel.
Arab Israelis are marginalized in Israeli society, constantly fighting for their rights. Suan is clear on this point, bringing conversations with reporters away from soccer and into the realm of what the Arab minority lacks -- infrastructure, schools and housing on a par with those of neighboring Jewish towns. "I am the ambassador of the Arab sector," he told me, "We don't ask for the sky." According to the New Israel Fund, only 3 percent of land owned in Israel is owned by Arab Israelis, and building permits are hard to come by.
In October 2000, Arab Israelis took to the streets protesting discrimination. The protests coincided with riots in the West Bank and Gaza among Palestinians. Terrified that the Arab Israeli population was rising up, Israeli police fired at demonstrators, killing 13 in all, two from Sakhnin. It was a devastating blow to the community. The Jewish players on the Sakhnin squad responded quickly, calling their Arab teammates with condolences. A block from Suan's second-floor home, in the center of a traffic island, officials placed a monument to those killed. For the people of Sakhnin, it became a constant reminder of the fragility of peace. For the players on the Sakhnin team, it was a reminder also that the town looked to them as a symbol of hope.
To some degree, Suan had always known that mixing these two worlds – the Arab Israeli conflict and soccer – was potentially volatile. He had only to look back 20 years in Israeli history to know that, to Rifaat "Jimmy" Tourk, a major soccer star of the 1970s and 1980s. Tourk is also an Israeli Arab, born in Jaffa, and was the first Israeli Arab on the national team. "Go play in Lebanon!" fans and players would yell at Tourk, whom I met in Tel Aviv.
The difference is the response of Israeli society today -- and the swift condemnation of these acts.
For example, when Abbas Suan was booed by home fans at one of the pre-World Cup games (this one against Croatia), "I had the feeling that this incident was supposed to make me feel very bad," he told me. We were sitting in his living room drinking cardamom-enhanced Arabic coffee, "But actually, it made me feel very good.," he looked up, pushing down the sleeve on his Diadora jacket, "all of the players came to me, and all of the people from the team, the staff, the administration . . . and they said, 'We want you to understand we are all against this. We are with you. They are hooligans!' . . .People called me from the Parliament! Mayors . . . the media – they all called me to tell me, 'We are against this incident.'"
He may be a symbol of efforts to coexist with his Jewish neighbors, but Suan is first a footballer, as the Israelis call them, or as we would say, a soccer player.
And soccer, the world over, is suffering from a severe racism problem. Over the last decade or so, across Europe and into the Middle East, organizations have been founded to beat back the problem, where fans taunt black and Asian players with monkey calls, where traditionally Jewish teams are told they should be sent to the gas chambers, and where Arab Israeli players endure threats as awful as "death to the Arabs," simply for stepping foot on the soccer field.
In 2003, the New Israel Fund, an organization which supports civil rights in Israel (and for which I worked just out of college), assembled a volunteer team of 50 soccer monitors in a program to reduce the vitriol in the stands. While incidents of racism have not ended, the social opprobrium against such activity has taken a dramatic leap forward.
Says Itzik Shanan, the communications director for the New Israel Fund in Israel, "The social power of [football] stars is immense. We are trying to give them a voice." The project brings children to meet their idols, in addition to sending monitors into the stands. The players themselves have begun to take positions against -racism in the press.
But first, there's a need for heroes.
Abbas Suan was named one of Time Magazine's heroes of 2005. Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, that same year, nominated Suan as sportsman of the year. His recollection of Suan's famous goal, tying the game and keepinig Israel in the running for the World Cup, is worth recounting:
"If I ever get too cynical about modern-day sports, I'll pull out a cassette tape, hook up my headphones and listen to the most inspiring highlight broadcast anywhere on the planet in 2005. I don't understand the language of the commentators, but that hardly matters, because sometimes emotions and events have the power to transcend the most imposing of barriers. Sometimes, even, sports do too. When I push play, the Hebrew-speaking voices transport me to Ramat-Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv on March 26. Israel is trailing Ireland 1-0 in the 90th minute of a World Cup qualifier, and the home team is in danger of losing its longshot bid to reach the world's biggest sporting event. On their final desperate push forward, the Israelis pass the ball until it lands on the right foot of midfielder Abbas Suan, a devout Muslim, an Israeli-Arab who has heard racist taunts his entire career.
"To my ears, the broadcast goes something like this, the decibels rising steadily to a roar: "Suan . . . ABBAS SUAN!!!!! ... ABBAS SUAN!!!!! ... ABBAS SUAN!!!!" And suddenly I close my eyes and the images of Suan's miraculous goal wash over me again: his teammates, all but one of them Jews, piling on their Muslim brother in ecstasy; the sold-out crowd going bonkers, filling the air with blue and white crepe paper. . ."
The joy of those twin successes – B'nei Sakhnin's unlikely win of the national football cup, which led them to represent Israel in Europe, and Abbas Suan's goal – was tarnished by entrenched racism, fans who heckled Suan and his fellow Arab players. And yet there were those who rose to the occasion, those who recognized that the story of Sakhnin provides a window, a glimpse of another path for the Middle East – imperfect, to be sure, deeply flawed. And yet better for the balm of sport.
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