When an Israeli soccer game looks like a Klan rally

It’s hard to say which is worse – the behavior of racist fans, or the tacit approval they get from Israeli sports officials and media.

I like to think that if you discount for the century of fighting with Arabs, Israel is still plenty racist, but no more than most societies. I remind myself that even the absolute worst display of Israeli racism – the chanting of monkey noises (“hoo-hoo-hoo!! hoo-hoo-hoo!!”) and the throwing of bananas at black players during soccer games – has been going on in Europe, too, and probably elsewhere. But what happened this week to Nigerian-born Israeli player Toto Tamuz shows a level of callousness to blatant, raw racism that I wonder how many countries could match.

On Monday, Tamuz scored the go-ahead goal against Beitar Jerusalem in the capital’s Teddy Stadium, and right afterward looked out at the crowd and put his index finger up to his lips to shush them. Immediately the referee penalized him for unsportsmanlike conduct: “provoking the crowd.” Since this was Tamuz’s second penalty of the game, he was automatically disqualified. His team, Hapoel Tel Aviv, went on to lose, 3-2.

It was only after a day of sports reporters and commentators praising the Beitar crowd for firing up the atmosphere with their mad-dog spirit that it became known why Tamuz tried to shush the crowd in the first place. He told Yediot Aharonot:

I’ve never seen such racism in my whole life. … [two other black Hapoel players] and I were the last ones on the field. When we came out of the tunnel they started throwing bananas at us. We heard curses and racist chants. … [During the game] I heard their regular song, ‘Give Toto a banana,’ and a lot of other things I’m embarrassed to mention.

Another black Hapoel player, Eric Djemba Djemba from Cameroon, told the newspaper:

When they call you ‘kushi’ [‘nigger’] … and throw bananas at you, it’s not exactly pleasant. I like this country and I’m happy to be here, but this is impossible. I didn’t know things like this happened in Israel.

From the media coverage I saw (which was not by any means comprehensive), these remarks were treated as “their side of the story,” but the “objective” story was mainly about a hugely exciting soccer game in which there probably was a bad call by the ref, along the lines of:  you shouldn’t throw a player out of the game for “shushing” the crowd, but then those are the breaks …

What’s shocking about all this is that everyone in Israel knows that what Tamuz and Djemba Djemba described is what happens at any given game in which black players are on the field, especially if they score a goal. I witnessed it myself at a game in Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium in 2006, one of the very few Israeli soccer games I’ve been to. When an opposing black player would get the ball, a few Maccabi Tel Aviv fans several rows up from me would start chanting the monkey noises. (Neither I nor anyone else in the stands said a word to them. I was there with my two young sons, and I was afraid to confront them for fear of having to fight them all, which I imagine was in the minds of many other fans.) Later, when one of the black players on the visiting team scored a goal, the section reserved for several hundred hardcore Maccabi fans erupted with loud, furious, sustained chants of “hoo-hoo-hoo!! hoo-hoo-hoo!!

This sort of thing has been going on at Israeli soccer games ever since the first black players arrived from overseas almost 20 years ago. The racist chanting against opposing Arab players has been going on ever since Arabs came into the league. Everybody knows this – and everybody knows that the worst, most psychotically racist fans in the country are those of Beitar Jerusalem, and that the atmosphere in Teddy Stadium when there are Arab or black opponents on the field is something out of a Klan rally. (I’ve sat in the stands with Beitar fans; they sing “I hate all the Arabs” with as much ease and familiarity as they sing Happy Birthday to You.)

Anybody who knows anything about Israeli soccer knows that Tamuz, who used to play for Beitar Jerusalem, was telling the truth – that he was trying to silence the racial mass hysteria going on in the stands. The same exact thing happened to him about two years ago in a game against Beitar – the monkey noises, the singing of “Give Toto a banana” – only that time the Israel Football Association had the decency to penalize Beitar, even rather severely, in soccer terms. But that was the exception; the rule is to accept what’s going on, to pretend it’s not happening, and the rule was in force this week.

The story wasn’t the Beitar crowd, but rather Tamuz. When the referee made him the villain and kicked him out of the game for his shushing gesture, the question in the media was whether the referee had been too harsh, not whether such a thing could have really happened, not whether we were all living in some Stephen King story.

And it didn’t end there. When the referee threw Tamuz out, the 24-year-old made some parting remarks. Tamuz says he told the ref that the crowd was the guilty one, not him. The ref says Tamuz called him “a shame and disgrace.” For that, Tamuz had to go before an Israel Football Association judge, attorney Yisrael Shimoni, who banned him from Hapoel’s next two games and put him on probation for two more.  “There is no connection between, on the one hand, the atmosphere in the stands and whether racist expressions were made or not, and, on the other hand, the insulting remarks to the referee,” said the judge.

Beitar Jerusalem, the pride of the Israeli right, the only team in the league that has an unwritten but ironclad ban on hiring Arab players, said the claims by Tamuz and Djemba Djemba were an “orchestrated campaign of lies.”

Hapoel Tel Aviv, the pride of the Israeli left, the only predominantly Jewish team in the league to have an Israeli Arab captain, provided the only note of decency and honor in this episode. It announced: “The team will give full backing to its players who fall victim to racist attacks from rival fans. The next time the team’s players are victimized by racist, demeaning behavior from the fans of any team – all of [Hapoel’s] players and officials will leave the field immediately.”