Saturday, June 7, 2008


By Barry Rubin
Ramat Gan, Israel
Forget all the wimpy claptrap about Israel disappearing. Anyone who believes such nonsense has obviously never been to an Israeli soccer game.
One thing for sure: if Israelis are so tough and determined over team loyalties in football, anyone who actually threatens our freedom and existence has pretty dim prospects.
I’m at the national championship match between Betar Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Hapoel along with 50,000 other Israelis. The crowd is mostly male and young but quite a mixture. Many might pass muster at a Puerto Rican day parade; a lot could raise a, “Funny you don’t look Jewish,” remark elsewhere in the world.
It’s a laboratory of essential Israeliness, not as an exact cross-section of the country but as a reminder of just how three-dimensionally real Israel actually is. It shows how Israel has evolved from historical Jewish experiences through distinctive Zionist and Israel society ones.
This event has nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s image in the Western media, or Middle East politics. And that’s precisely the point.
What a cultural clash this match seems. In one corner, the Tel Aviv Worker team. Can you imagine another sports team—outside of the old Soviet bloc—with such a name? Colors are red and white. It comes out of the labor movement (and Labor party) pre-state movements.
This is one aspect of basic Israeliness. The glorification of labor is a big part of the Zionist movement’s history, a large part of how the state and society was built. We have no capitalists and little capital so the people who do the work have to create the companies and thus the jobs. After centuries of being forced into mercantile pursuits, Jews must return to the land and the factory, basic production, and depend on themselves.
Now, it is something like a joke, though also integrated into the mentality and society. While Israel may have become less egalitarian in many ways, the psychology is still there. When workers come into my house, we sit around, drink coffee, and are on a first-name basis. A strong sense of community persists. In school, kids in a class stay together several years. More effort—sometimes relatively too much—is built on teaching social skills and personal interaction than on academics.
A big banner at the last game over the fanatic fan section read, “Long Live Hapoel!” which could be more literally translated as, “Long Live the Working People,” adorned with a hammer and sickle. That’s not literal politics though it does reflect something. One of my colleagues, who came to Israel at age 15, said the first question she was asked by another girl at school was, “Are you left or right?” a question that life in Ohio had not prepared her for.
Today, Hapoel is a Tel Aviv local team. Yet Tel Aviv is also something of a state of mind: Mediterranean, secular, somewhat bohemian, Israel’s intellectual and cultural capital. It is not so much to the left politically—elections are close and there is often a small majority for the political right—but Tel Aviv is a deeply rooted, multi-level phenomenon.
Then there’s the other side. Jerusalem Betar, colors black and yellow, equally legitimate as basic Israel. Betar was the last place to fall in the revolt against the Romans. It’s the name of the youth movement of Herut, now Likud, Israel’s conservative party. Its self-image is nationalistic, poorer, Sephardic, Middle Eastern, and religious, reflecting Jerusalem’s ethos as much as any political stance.
Betar fans are intense. If there’s any football hooliganism in Israel it’s from them, though tame stuff compared to Europe. In the last minute after Betar won a critical game recently, fans flooded the field in celebration. As a result, the game was cancelled, a disaster for their team.
Security is tight; the police out in force. All plastic water bottles are confiscated at the gates. “But it’s plastic!” one fan protests while handing it over. “You can still throw it on the field,” says the policeman.
The stadium is packed, half yellow; half red. Yet while there’s a sense of war in it, civility is good, by Israeli standards fantastic. When players fall, the guy on the other team who knocked them down often helps them up. About one-quarter of the players is foreign, non-Jewish and often black African, though Hapoel has one Ethiopian-origin Jewish Israeli player. Hapoel’s big fan favorite is Fabio Junior, from Bulgaria.
Despite the overtones, the rivalry is good-natured. Israelis scream at each other but confrontations that in the United States would end in violence stay verbal.
This game is a good metaphor for Israeli politics. There is passion and even hatred but people know where to stop. And tragic events to the contrary—the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin being the most obvious—actual clashes only reinforce those limits. There is an underlying sense of something so much in common that it cushions these conflicts. Few remember that a couple of decades ago the Ashkenazic-Sephardic and religious-secular rifts were thought likely to bring down the state. Now they are at most minor nuisances.
Nevertheless, while deep down everyone may know that we are all one family, the emotional experience is so intense that when I think a huge amount of time has gone bye and think I am completely exhausted, I look at the game clock to find that only 18 minutes has actually elapsed. The seats are for decorative purposes only. No one sits down during the almost four hours.
Another element is the subtext of Jewish/Israeli history embedded in the society. Those noxious noisemakers going off full-blast in my ears are modeled on the shofar and sound just like one. When another team’s fans wanted to convey their certain victory over Betar they proclaimed, “The walls of Jerusalem will crumble!” Israel has a foundation as solid—more so in many cases—than that of any other country in the world.
And there’s something else, very important, that I want to convey to you. It’s hard to do so but I will do my best. The basic view of Israel in the world, whether pro or con, is pretty flat. It comes from media reports and focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, the actually existing country gets short shrift. Yet Israel is a fully realized state with a mass of subcultures, an overarching national ethos and sense of unity, a distinctive language, and a powerful set of cultural-psychological norms built on history, both 3,000- year history and 60-year history.
Those who support Israel, including the great majority of Jews elsewhere, are largely reacting to two concepts. First, Israel is imperiled, a very familiar theme in Jewish history. Second, Israel is religious, relating to their own basic definition of Jewishness. For some, though this is fading, there is a nostalgic, ethnic shtetl-oriented perspective, and also the charitable impulse toward poorer Jews.
Yet Israel is a fully realized vision of what Jews as a people should be and be doing. It could certainly stand to learn some very good ideas and examples from Jews elsewhere, but the opposite is also true. The world view is different here, based on relying on ourselves, not dealing with assimilation, existing in a Jewish environment in which religion as a direct factor is greatly diminished yet, indirectly as a diluted cultural influence, very powerful. Friday evening to Saturday evening is the weekend; Jewish holidays are the public cycle of the year; and so on.
From far away, Israel is small and its future may appear dim. From close up, apart from a small set of café intellectuals often the main source for foreign journalists, Israel looks very strong.
Oh, and what happened in the game, you ask? Double overtime, 0-0; settled by a sudden-death, alternating one-on-one, face off between players and goalkeepers. Betar won. Left meets right. End of the game: fireworks and unity. Colors: blue and white.
Well, look at it this way. Two thousand years ago we lost a critical game to the Romans. It was very bad. Israel sunk to last place for a long time, but also stayed in the league when many apparently stronger teams went kaput.
Now, Hapoel, after winning two consecutive championships, lost a game. If Israel has lost a few lately, it’s still high in the standings. And if it didn’t collapse that evening, Israel is going to go on for a very long time.

A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, March 23, 2008.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit

Professor Barry Rubin,
Director, (GLORIA) Center Global Research in International Affairs

Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor, Turkish Studies
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