The Palestinian flag is back: ‘Arab soccer in a Jewish State’ revisited

By Tamir Sorek
Submitted to Session P4684 (Palestine: Institutions, Alliances, Resistances, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper re-examines the arguments made in a 2007 book (Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave) regarding the apolitical character of Arab soccer space in Israel. The book's arguments went as follows: For most Arab fans in Israel, soccer has been an opportunity for displaying a common ground with Jewish citizens, and this display targeted Jewish audience. Emphasizing Palestinian nationalism or ethnically based political protest were considered as endangering the potential for rapprochement and therefore were excluded from the stadium.
Over the last decade, however, there has been a gradual explicit politicization and nationalization of Arab soccer stadiums in Israel, which has been accelerated following the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Leading this tendency are the fans of Ittihad Abnaa Sakhnin, the most successful Arab club in Israel. Some of these fans bring to the stadium explicit icons of political protest, including Palestinian national flags, banners decorated with the Dome of the Rock, and slogans protesting specific government policies against Palestinian citizens. I explain this shift by the interaction of recent local and global developments. Locally, it is a reaction to a wave of anti-Arab legislation and rhetoric over the past decade, and the general deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel during the same period. At the same time, the fans of Sakhnin are part of a globalized phenomenon of a politicized and vocal fan circles, known as ultras. The Sakhnin Ultras’ political activism is inspired as well by fans behavior in neighboring countries and more specifically, by the fans of the Egyptian team al-Ahly, who took an explicit stand against the Mubarak regime in 2011. Finally, the introduction of social media has undermined the traditional distinction in Arab soccer in Israel between politicized sport journalists and a-political fans in the stadium.