Monday, March 26, 2007

Liking Israel despite themselves

The Guardian "Comment if Free" column has an article by Alex Stein, clearly not a fan of Israeli policies, who was impressed with the welcome that English fans received from Israelis:
Normalisation is the desire to be a country like any other. Israelis are fiends for it. Whatever the circumstances, they see it as their birthright - the final piece in the Zionist jigsaw. Israel's most virulent critics take the opposite view. Whatever the circumstances, they wish Israel to be made into the exception. And last weekend's festivities in Tel Aviv, in which the drab goalless draw in Ramat Gan was only a sub-plot, provided the perfect opportunity to further assess Israel's place in the world.

The match was an unequivocal hasbara success for Israel. For England, this was just another tiresome away game. For Israel, this was one of the biggest games in the country's history, and a chance to welcome the mythical England supporter - tattooed and bevvied-up, but cheerful and decent all the same. Despite this, most countries tend to greet English fans with fear. The Israeli authorities, however, preferred to adopt Jay-Z's dictum that sensitive thugs need hugs. English flags were paraded throughout Tel Aviv, supplies of beer were increased dramatically, and free transport was laid on. A special one-day festival was held in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park, with fun and frolics, including a chance for some of England's fans to see if their beer bellies could defeat their leaner Israeli counterparts in some friendly wrestling.

The fans could not believe the welcome. They are used to being received by riot police, not adoring admirers. This kind of revelry is normally reserved only for the World Cup. But, for a country that's not always so competent at crowd control, police were sparse. I witnessed a friendly face-off between the two sets of fans on Tel Aviv's beach, in which the Israelis' rendition of Shalom Aleichem, was greeted with English cries of "Let's go fucking mental". Unable to free myself of inherited prejudices, I wondered whether I might hear the occasional anti-semitic chant. Not a whisper, although - on a different tack - I did hear a bit too much of "No surrender to the IRA".

Of course, however friendly the banter, it doesn't take much for trouble to start. But the hands-off approach to security was a tremendous success. Hopefully there's a lesson to be learned.

The match also provided an opportunity to highlight the work of Kick Racism out of Football, an English creation which has now been exported to Israel. The New Israel Fund organised a weekend of activities to showcase the work of the organisation. The legendary John Barnes led a British delegation on a visit to Hapoel Abu Ghosh-Mevasseret Zion, Israel's first joint Jewish/Arab professional team. And at a gala dinner held by the New Israel Fund, Israel's first Arab minister, Raleb Majadele, gave his first official address. Much work remains to be done before the promise of kicking racism out of Israeli football (not to mention the wider society) is complete. But it's vital to know that serious work is being put into achieving this goal.

However, we mustn't forget the arguments of the "exceptionalists". Last week on Comment is free, Ismail Patel argued that Israel should be expelled from Uefa. Patel focused on the problems experienced by the Palestinian football team. These range from a missile hitting Gaza's only football stadium, to the difficulties faced when the team tries to go abroad to play a match. But because boycotting a team because of the policies of its government isn't a particularly frequent occurrence, Patel had to adopt the incoherent strategy tried by others who seek to demonise Israel - weird attempts to establish a universal principle through twisted logic: "Although in an ideal world sports should be kept separate from politics, there is a different reality. Nazi Germany used the 1936 Olympics to showcase Hitler and his fascist ideology, which culminated in the Holocaust and the tragic deaths of 6 million Jews."

And therein lies the rub. Nazi Germany did indeed use the 1936 Olympics to showcase Hitler and his fascist ideology. As we have noted, the Israeli football authorities used the occasion as an opportunity to welcome thousands of people from another country, and as a shot in the arm for the campaign to kick racism out of the sport. Followers of Patel might respond to this by admitting the value of these initiatives, and by arguing for them to be spread more deeply into society. This would not weaken their basic thesis. But, as ideological anti-Zionists, they are engaged in a project to systematically reject every aspect of Israeli society that does not proclaim its own deviance. And so they label projects such as Kick Racism out of Football as superficial attempts to cover up the deeper crimes of the Zionist project.

Despite all this, there is a part of me that's not comfortable with thousands of Englishmen coming to Israel and thinking it's just the Republic of Tel Aviv, a sun-drenched paradise with beautiful girls and uber-chic bars. I have no problem with them knowing about the darker side of life here, which is one of the reasons I try and write as frankly as I can in this space.

But I also want them to know the positive things. If someone like Ilan Pappe can speak of the "many, many good things in Israel, it's an impressive project that the Zionist movement did, the way it saved Jews, the way it created a modern society almost out of nothing", then why can't Ismail Patel? I don't want people to boycott Israel, I want them to engage with it. I want people who are interested to come here and take an honest look at the good and bad things that are going on. Then, in whatever small way they can, to try and strengthen the forces of progress within Israeli society. This, and not the cowardice of boycott, is the imperative that faces all tourists, even England football fans.
The easiest way to distinguish anti-Zionists from anti-semites is to see if they have the ability to say anything nice about Israel.