Sports Illustrated Mars Story on Jewish/Arab Soccer Team

In an August 29, 2005 Sports Illustrated article, “Stars of David,” reporter Grant Wahl’s excessive focus on Israel’s alleged discrimination against Arabs mars an otherwise inspiring story of Jewish and Arab cooperation on the soccer field. The author almost seems to be urging the two Arab stars of the Israeli team to draw attention to their “tragic story” through a public spectacle similar to what the African-American sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, did in the 1968 Olympics (by raising a fist in the black power salute on the victory stand) .

Much of the article is devoted to highlighting the difficulties faced by the Israeli-Arab soccer players, including hateful taunts directed towards them at games. According to the story, one of the players, Abbas Suan:

… has been subjected to threats and taunts, which he has handled with dignified restraint. Racism is so common in Israeli soccer stadiums that the New Israel Fund, which provides financial help to civil rights groups, sends monitors to every league match and releases a weekly Racism Index to the media. The right-wing supporters of Betar Jerusalem are the two-time defending ‘champions.’ Sure enough, during a national-team friendly [game] against Croatia at Betar Jerusalem’s stadium last February, fans whistled every time Suan touched the ball. One favorite chant, “Abbas Suan should get cancer”, rhymes in Hebrew.

While such taunting is extremely objectionable, is it really unusual in soccer? Does Israel deserve to be singled out in this way? In fact, racist chants and worse are rampant in soccer, and Wahl, who covers the sport for Sports Illustrated, ought to know this.

But Wahl has apparently never written in the magazine about the epidemic of racist chants at soccer games in Spain and Great Britain, for example. Here is how the Guardian (Feb. 18, 2005) reported recently on the racist taunting of a black player in Spain:

Spain’s Anti-violence Commission has opened an investigation into allegations of racist abuse during last Saturday’s league match between Real Zaragoza and Barcelona.

The Catalans’ striker Samuel Eto’o was greeted with monkey chants whenever he touched the ball at the Romareda Stadium and peanuts were thrown on to the pitch after he scored one of the goals in his side’s 4-1 victory.

There were similar “monkey” chants by Spanish soccer fans targeting two black players for a British team, Ashley Cole and Sean Wright-Phillips (Guardian, Dec. 22, 2004). Except for one brief vague mention in a notes column regarding Spain’s attempt to host the Olympics, these incidents were ignored by Sports Illustrated.

Ignored as well is that British fans have also taunted black players as monkeys (Guardian, Dec 9, 2004), targeting Birmingham striker Dwight Yorke.

With so many examples of racist European soccer fans taunting black players as monkeys and throwing peanuts at them, it is striking that SI indicts only Israeli fans. Needless to say, never did SI use the above incidents to pass judgement on Spain or England.

While it may not have been his intention, Wahl’s article plays into a noxious campaign that seeks to cast Israel as a racist state, despite the fact that it is the only state in the Middle East where Arabs and Jews enjoy equal rights under the law, including the right to freely vote. And it is the only state in the Middle East where Arabs and Jews can compete in sporting matches or play together on the same team.

But, ignoring this reality, Wahl quotes an Arab commentator in the article who states that there is a huge gap between Arabs and Jews in Israel economically, suggesting that Arabs are treated unequally. However, there is another group in Israel just as poor as Arabs — ultra-Orthodox Jews. They share with the Arab Muslim population very large family size, lower levels of secular education and generally only one parent in the work force. On the other hand, Arab Christians in Israel have smaller families, higher levels of education and both parents working. As a result, they have typically Israeli standards of living. Using SI’s faulty logic, one would conclude that Israel discriminates against Ultra-Orthodox Jews and favors Israeli Arab Christians.

All this is not to say that Israel is prejudice-free. Israel, like the U.S., like many other nations, struggles with issues related to minorities. To foster acceptance between its country’s Arabs and Jews, Israel has long included in their schools’ curricula lessons on Arab culture and language, on the history of the Arabs in the region, as well as the importance of pluralism and respect for other religions and ethnicities.

Apparently unaware of this reality, in several places Wahl appears to liken the situation of Israeli Arabs to that of African Americans during the civil rights era, e.g. :

It was an unprecedented feat by a team from Israel’s Arab sector, the equivalent, roughly, of a historically black college winning the NCAA basketball crown during the Civil Rights era. Rifaat (Jimmy) Tourk knows the pressure well. He was Israel’s Jackie Robinson, the first Arab to play for the national team.

But Arabs in Israel have never faced anything comparable to the legal discrimination or the legacy of mistreatment and slavery faced by blacks in the United States. In Israeli society as a whole, Arabs occupy many high level positions, such as Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, Deputy Foreign Minister Nawaf Massalha and several ambassadors, including Ali Yahya, Walid Mansour and Mohammed Masarwa. A young Israeli Arab woman was even voted to be Miss Israel.

And contrary to Wahl’s assertion that Arabs “don’t serve in the military,” many Arabs do serve in the Israeli armed forces, including Major General Hussain Fares, commander of Israel’s border police and Major General Yosef Mishlav, who was until recently head of homeland security as Israel’s Home Front commander. Arab Druze are subject to the same compulsory draft as Jews. While most Muslim and Christian citizens are not subject to the compulsory military draft, they are free to volunteer for the army, and the number serving has been increasing in recent years. In the Bedouin community there is a particularly strong tradition of joining the IDF.

Instead of conjuring up an erroneous comparison to the pre-civil rights South, Wahl could have positively compared Israel’s inclusion of Arab players with the absolute discrimination against Jews in virtually every facet of life in most of the Arab and Muslim world.

In addition, Wahl misses the crucial context of the events that he is writing about, failing to give proper weight to the unique and very difficult circumstances that Israel faces in comparison to the United States. Israel has experienced years of terrorism and actual wars from hostile neighboring Arab countries and terrorist organizations. Under these circumstances, it is laudable that the Jewish majority in Israel is able to distinguish between the hostile Arab world and Israel’s Arab minority.

Once again ignoring this reality, Wahl de votes several paragraphs to the allegedly tragic family histories of the two soccer stars, but omits the context of surrounding Arab states and local Palestinian Arabs waging a brutal war against the newborn Israeli state.

“What would you do if you were Abbas Suan?” asks Wahl. “How your father … can still show visitors the deeds to the family’s land and wonder, 57 years later, if there will ever be reparations.” Wahl is apparently unaware that Israeli Arabs who lost land during the war can file for and receive restitution from Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property, or other government offices. By 1993, more than 10,000,000 NIS (New Israeli Sheckels) had been paid in compensation, and more than 12,000 acres of replacement land had been given in compensation. It is worth noting that Israel has given this compensation despite the fact that not a single penny has been paid to any of the more than 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, who were forced by the Arab governments to abandon their homes, businesses and savings.

Instead of simply reporting the story, Wahl seemingly wanted to create his own new story by attempting to politicize the two Arab players, encouraging them to use their star-status to speak out about politics. Wahl devotes 16 paragraphs to this theme. Here are just a few:

Amid the joy and optimism, the question hangs in the air like the faint scent of gunpowder. If Israel makes it to the World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting stage, would Abbas Suan and Walid Badir consider a high-profile protest, a symbolic statement like the famous black-power salute by African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City?…

…What would you do if you were Abbas Suan? Would you dip your toe into the pool of protest, knowing that once you go there you can’t come back? Would you tell your family’s tragic story?…Would you use your platform as a sportsman? Or would it be wiser, safer, just to say nothing?…

…What would you do if you were Walid Badir? Would you dip your toe into the pool of protest? Would you tell your family’s tragic story?…

He ends the article by repeating this same three sentence mantra.

After Badir made it clear that he didn’t want to answer any political questions, Wahl badgered him, asking, “Is there a reason that you don’t want to talk about what it means to be an Israeli Arab? A reason you don’t want to talk about your grandfather?”

“No reason,” Badir replies. “I don’t want to answer these questions. I am a soccer player, and that’s that.”

Badir’s request to just talk about soccer was reasonable.

The bottom line — Wahl has highlighted an inspiring story about Arabs and Israelis finding common ground on the soccer field. But he marred that hopeful story by including distorted and erroneous political charges, while virtually ignoring the far more egregious racism directed at Israel, and at black and other foreign soccer players in Europe. It is unfortunate that Wahl injected a highly inappropriate and inaccurate political agenda into the pages of Sports Illustrated.

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