Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave by Tamir Sorek is an intriguing, thought-provoking text. It gives a face to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and shows how soccer fits into this context. The book is intense and academic in nature and will be appreciated by both the scholar and the fan. It provides us with an explanation of how politics and sports interact in a region of the world that is struggling to make peace.
In principle, soccer is a positive force. It can be an outlet for the oppressed and the frustrated; it also can serve as an element of change. Soccer provides opportunities for unity, where rivals can at times be part of the same ideal. An interviewee named Bashar talked about the positive aspects of the beautiful game. “When we go to watch soccer it is purely for the game,” Bashar commented. “How do you say, we leave the hard feelings at home… let’s say there aren’t any.”
For 90 minutes your favorite club or player can become the hot topic and politics are on put on the back burner temporarily. For 90 minutes Arabs and Jews can sit in the same bleachers and cheer on the same team. In May 2004, one team (Ittihad Abnaa Sakhnin) got congratulatory calls from both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat after becoming the first Arab team to win the Israeli State Cup. You wouldn’t expect Sharon and Arafat to agree so quickly on anything. Opportunities for consensus are few and far between during a time of tension and uncertainty in the Middle East.
Soccer also provides people with an identity. Another interviewee named Suzanne provides an explanation. “What I do like in soccer is… For me as a Palestinian who lives in Israel – I don’t have a flag. The Israeli flag doesn’t represent me, and neither does the Palestinian flag. If the Palestinian state were established I would not go to live there.”
“So this is one of the reasons that I feel I belong to the flag of Maccabi Haifa,” Suzanne added. “I go to the games and I hold the flag in my arms and I don’t have any problem singing Haifa’s song. There I can sing and I have a song. I belong to a certain group with a certain song and a certain flag.”
Soccer gives people, even those who are strangers or feel uncomfortable in their own country, a sense of purpose and belonging.