A noble goal: Can Israel give soccer racism the boot

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

As Israeli Arab striker Abbas Suan rifled a shot toward the goal, an Israeli racist uncorked a shot of his own:

“Abbas Suan should get cancer,” went the cheer — which rhymes in Hebrew, incidentally — and soon many fans joined in. And it was not the most objectionable chant of the night. “Death to Arabs” is bellowed out at many Israeli soccer matches with “Let’s go Mets!” ubiquity.

Little did the fans know that volunteers from the New Israel Fund were writing down every racist epithet. What’s more, under a recent Israeli law advocated for by the NIF, aggressive soccer fans can be prosecuted for incitement of racial hatred.

The NIF’s “New Voices from the Stadium” program will be the subject of a lecture by the NIF’s longtime S.F. director Steve Rothman, which is part of the Israel@60 Educational Symposium on Thursday, May 8 at the JCC of San Francisco.

The NIF program amasses a weekly “racism index” that is reported to the media. Teams have been fined and punished for the behavior of their fans, and longtime anecdotal tales about the racist behavior of Beitar Jerusalem fans have finally been quantified (the team has never signed an Arab player, and embarrassingly enough, this is also Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s favorite team).

While some critics have complained that the program makes soccer racism seem like a uniquely Israeli problem, Rothman takes issue with that.

First of all, racism in soccer stadiums is a worldwide problem — black players in Europe have routinely been greeted with monkey noises or pelted with bananas. Avram Grant, the Israeli Jewish coach of London’s Chealsea Football Club — one of the world’s top teams — has received death threats. As for singling Israel out, Rothman points out that the “I” in NIF stands for Israel — so that’s the country the organization focuses on.

“The NIF is an Israeli organization; we care about Israel. We’re trying to coordinate with European leagues and I think that for Israel to become an exporter of social change is really good,” said Rothman, a native of Los Angeles.

As Rothman noted, European clubs have started adopting their own version of the program during a recent crackdown on racist behavior (some French teams have actually been forced to play home games in locked and empty stadiums due to repeated warnings about the aggressively racist actions of their supporters).

Rothman notes that the program isn’t just about shaming unruly fans (though that is part of it). It’s about making a change in society, albeit incrementally. He doesn’t think this will solve all of Israel’s woes — but, at the very least, it might get people to realize that bellowing “death to Arabs” in public is not acceptable.

“The whole idea is to take something that’s elemental to Israel — and soccer really cuts across all ethnic lines in society,” he said. “And this goes beyond dialogue. If you confront racism in Israeli soccer, you deal with it in a place everyone cares about and affects everyone’s lives.”

And, while Israel remains far from a racial Eden, Rothman sees progress in the cheap seats.

“Things have definitely improved, particularly in sensitizing people to the existence of racism in Israeli society. Many people didn’t even see this kind of behavior as something to be frowned upon and confronted,” he said.

“We want to see these issues being discussed and debated everywhere in society.”

The Israel@60 Educational Symposium runs from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 8 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St.

Speakers include San Francisco artist Alan Kaufman, whose lecture is titled “Toward a Zionist Arts Movement”; Steven Spiegel, professor of political science at UCLA; Israeli artist Michal Gavrish, speaking on contemporary Israeli art; and many others.

Tickets are $36 for adults, $12 for students and seniors and $18 for a half-day pass. Information: visit www.jccsf.org or call (415) 292-1233.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.