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University of Haifa
[McGill U] Eran Shor, [Haifa U] Yuval Yonay: '''Play and shut up': the silencing of Palestinian athletes in Israeli media"
  
                                 

Eran Shor ershor@gmail.com        Yuval Yonay  yyonay@soc.haifa.ac.il

Editorial Note:
Sports: The New Frontier for Post-Zionist Scholarship
Just when it looked that radical academics have used every corner of liberal arts to prove some fault with Israel, sociology of sports has become the next frontier.  Whatever the merits of using sports as a measure of ethnic and national co-existence, the authors virtually assure a negative evaluation of Israel through the use a neo-Marxist approach linked to Antonio Gramsci [also known as critical studies].  The state that "taking a Gramscian perspective, some scholars have suggested that sport is a site of contested cultural practices, used by elite groups to maintain and fortify their social dominance." No wonder that they then find that "sport field reflects the tendencies of the larger society, helping to maintain the social dominance of hegemonic groups." Furthermore, they conclude that the sports stars [in Israel] serve mostly as tokens and have no real influence on the social order."
The two authors seem to live in their own new-Marxist reality where individuals are seen as part of a group of either victims or victimizers, where everyone is either a symbol or a token.   This self-enclosed reality is reinforced with quotes from other neo-Marxist academics, a common practice in critical scholarship.   Even by the standard of the field, this is an extremely poorly- executed research, replete with Marxist jargon befitting a communist party meeting rather than an academic journal.

'Play and shut up': the silencing of Palestinian athletes in Israeli media
Eran Shor; Yuval Yonay
First published on: 10 September 2010
To cite this Article Shor, Eran and Yonay, Yuval(2011) ''Play and shut up': the silencing of Palestinian athletes in Israeli
media', Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34: 2, 229 — 247, First published on: 10 September 2010 (iFirst)
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2010.503811

‘Play and shut up’: the silencing of Palestinian athletes in Israeli media
Eran Shor and Yuval Yonay (First submission May 2009; First published September 2010)

Abstract
In this paper we contrast two opposing theoretical views in the sociology
of sport. The first sees sport as a field that brings together different
groups and bridges social divides. In this view, minority sport stars serve
both as role models and as a mouthpiece voicing the feelings and needs of
their ethnic groups. The opposing view holds that the sport field reflects
the tendencies of the larger society, helping to maintain the social
dominance of hegemonic groups. In this view sport stars serve mostly as
tokens and have no real influence on the social order. Our systematic
analysis of Israeli media between the years 2002 and 2007 lends support
to the latter view. We show that the expressions and behaviours of Israeli
Palestinian soccer players are consistently policed and silenced by the
Jewish-dominated media discourse, effectively blocking one of the few
channels of expression for the Arab public in Israel.
Keywords: Israel; sports; Palestine; media; citizenship; discourse.

Introduction
On 26 March 2005 Abbas Suan, a Palestinian1 soccer player from
Sakhnin, scored a last-minute equalizer for the Israeli national team in
its home game against the Irish national team, keeping up Israel’s
hopes of reaching the 2006 World Cup games. Four days later, Walid
Bdeir, another Palestinian player from Kafr Qasim, also scored an
equalizer against the French national team. Suan and Bdeir were
instantly hailed by many as symbols of the coexistence between Jews
and Arabs in Israel. Writers anticipated that these goals would ‘open
up the gates for Israeli Arabs’, exploiting the Hebrew pun on Shearim
that means both goals and gates. Even the racist slogan ein Aravim, ein
piguim (no Arabs, no terrorism), delegitimizing the existence of Israeli
Arabs, was momentarily replaced by ein Aravim, ein shearim (no Arabs, no goals).
Have the goals of Suan and Bdeir really opened up the gates for the
Arab public? Has athletic success helped Palestinian players find an
open ear among the Jewish public, legitimizing the discussion of issues
and problems that are relevant to the Arab public in Israel? We
examine these questions by looking at the coverage of Palestinian
soccer players in the Hebrew media. Specifically, we focus on the
media and public responses to the political statements of these players.
While some scholars believe that sports contribute to bridging social
divides and promoting minority groups, others suggest that the field of
sport reflects and reinforces the power relations in society. Sorek
(2007) found that Palestinians perceive their participation and success
in major soccer clubs and the national team as an ‘integrative enclave’,
which they hope to expand to other social spheres. Yet he explains that
such a possibility depends on the Jewish majority’s response. Our
systematic examination of newspaper articles, TV programmes and
internet websites in 2002 7 demonstrates that the Jewish majority
zealously blocks this option.
We show that the Palestinian players are expected to exhibit their
unconditional loyalty and commitment to the national team and their
clubs. When they express a consensual vision of coexistence and
assimilation they are enthusiastically commended for it. However,
when they talk about their hybrid Israeli-Palestinian identity and bring
forward the demands of the Arab public, they are scolded and
silenced. Both journalists and internet surfers cite the importance of
keeping ‘clean sports’ separate from ‘dirty politics’ and demand that
the players cease bringing up issues about which they ‘know nothing’
or ‘have no moral authority to talk’. We show that these silencing
practices are effective in making the Palestinian players very cautious
and prevent them from expressing the feelings and opinions of the
Israeli Arab public.
Minority sport stars and their impact on the social order
Traditional views in the sociology of sport see sport as the ‘modern
secular religion’, which, according to Durkheimian thinking, must
develop in every modern society in order to preserve its sense of unity
and cohesiveness (Coles 1975). Janet Lever (1983) suggests that through
sport different groups in society may find a way to come together and
bridge their differences and divides. Sport, in this line of thought,
promotes ethnic and racial integration; through it minority groups gain
visibility and become part of the collective, while also improving their
social, political and economic standing (Carrington 1986). In this view,
minority sport stars serve both as role models, marking the way to
success and self fulfilment, and as genuine representatives of their public
who voice the authentic views, grievances and demands of the
disadvantaged groups to which they belong.2
Contrary to this optimistic view, recent studies suggest that sport
often contributes to the exacerbation of ethnic tensions. Krouwel et al.
(2006) for example, found that in the Netherlands soccer competitions
mainly reinforce ethnic divisions and homogeneity rather than
bridging these divides and serving as a cultural crossover. Taking a
Gramscian perspective, some scholars have suggested that sport is a
site of contested cultural practices, used by elite groups to maintain
and fortify their social dominance (e.g. Hargreaves 1986; Sugden and
Tomlinson 2002). Others have shown that relations of subordination,
discrimination and oppression that characterize the larger society also
penetrate the sport field (McKay 1990; Bale and Cronin 2002).
In Israel, despite this growing body of scholarly work, there are still
many who believe that sport provides Israeli minorities with an
opportunity to improve their political and economic position. Those
who hold this view contend that, through participation and success in
sports, especially soccer, the large Arab minority takes a significant
role in Israeli society and achieves greater equality and integration.
Hagai Harif (2003), for example, argues that sport may serve as a cure
for the tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel and help improve the
latter’s social and economic position:
[Arab] soccer players . . . successfully integrated into the national
soccer team, wore the national uniform, and stood at attention when
the national anthem was played. . . . This shows that despite the
adversities they face, Arabs in Israel are able to attain equal
opportunities. (Harif 2003, p. 9)3
Yet other scholars and pundits hold a contrary view, maintaining
that Israeli sport is first and foremost a field where power relations
prevail, a field that aids the dominant ethnic group, the Jews, to
maintain their hegemony. Tamir Sorek (2007) claims that for years the
state has used Arab soccer as a ‘stabilizing mechanism’ to control the
Arab population. Zouheir Bahloul, a veteran Israeli Arab sports
commentator and journalist, talks about the relatively successful
penetration of Palestinian players into the high levels of Israeli soccer
as ‘exemplary escapism’: it provides an alternative and disconnected
life for the very few successful players but has no impact on the
position of Arabs as a group (2003, p. 84).
We test these opposing views by analysing sports coverage in the
mass media. We examine the extent to which Israeli Palestinian
citizens are able to penetrate and affect the public sphere using their
athletic success. More specifically, we focus on the ability of
Palestinian sport stars to contribute to the media and public debate
over contentious political issues. By following the media and public
response to political statements and expressions of Palestinian players
we try to assess the latter’s ability to bring forward issues of
importance for the Arab public.

Israeli Palestinian soccer players
The Israeli Palestinians are locals, born and raised Israeli citizens, but
the Jewish dominance in Israeli society and the ongoing conflict
between Israel and the Palestinian people turned them into second
class citizens in their own homeland. Most Jews hold hostile views
towards the Palestinian minority, and even official rhetoric often
portrays them as a security and demographic threat. As a consequence,
Arab citizens are excluded from both material and symbolic
goods and suffer from civil discrimination. While in the 1990s,
following the Oslo Accords and the progress in the Israeli-Palestinian
peace process, one could trace the first signs of improvement in the
public and political stance of the Arab minority, in recent years the
Jewish tendencies of Israel have been growing stronger, and calls for
the exclusion of Palestinians from the Israeli collective are on the rise
(e.g. Rouhana 1997; Kraus and Yonay 2000; Bar-Tal and Teichman
2005).
Israeli Palestinians managed to reach the higher levels of Israeli
soccer. During the years 2002 7 between fifteen and thirty Palestinians
played each season in the major league. A few of them have been
summoned to the national team. In addition, three Arab teams
advanced to the major Israeli soccer league. Two (Hapoel Taibe,
Maccabi Akha Nazareth) stayed there briefly, while the third, Abnaa
Sakhnin has become an integral part of Israeli premier league and
reached notable achievements.
Numerous studies worldwide (e.g. Hartman and Husband 1974;
Entman 1990) and in Israel (e.g. Lemish 2000; Avraham 2003)
demonstrate the exclusion and misrepresentation of minority groups
in the media. While sport provides ethnic minorities with high
visibility, research shows that this is also a field where biased
representation is very prevalent (e.g. Hoberman 1997; Stone et al.
1999). Still, sport is one of the few fields in which the Arab minority
receives media exposure of any sort (Aburaiya, Avraham and
Wolfsfeld 1998).
Research into sports and into Palestinian soccer in Israel has
substantially accelerated in recent years (e.g. Ben-Porat and Ben-Porat
2004; Shor 2008). In the most thorough and encompassing of these
studies, Tamir Sorek (2007) examined various aspects of Arab soccer
in Israel, including its historical roots and development, its municipal
financial support, the identity of Arab athletes and fans and the
discourse of the Arab sports newspapers. Sorek’s main conclusion is
that soccer serves as what he calls ‘an integrative enclave’ ‘a social
sphere that is ruled by a liberal-integrative discourse of citizenship’
(2007, p. 2). According to many of his interviewees, soccer has had a
functional role in Arab society, bringing people together and
disciplining the youth, and it has rarely served as a stage for national
protest.
While his findings are important and illuminating, Sorek has
focused on the meaning of soccer for the Arab citizens of Israel and
its potential for Arab-Jewish integration. While briefly discussing the
response of the Jewish majority to the attempts made by the Arab
minority to use soccer as an integrative mechanism, Sorek did not
systematically analyse the Israeli-Jewish discourse. He thus concluded
his study with a call for such a systematic study. Our study is the first
to take on this challenge. We thus add an important piece to the puzzle
by showing the ways in which political protest, in the few cases when        it
does occur, is silenced in one of the most important Israeli public
spheres the Hebrew media.

Methodology
Sampling
We examined all the articles and interviews dealing with Israeli
Palestinian players in the major men’s soccer league, which appeared
in Hebrew newspapers, television channels and internet sites during
four consecutive seasons between July 2002 and June 2007. Data were
systematically gathered from:
1. Daily newspapers Articles and interviews were collected from the
three major Hebrew daily newspapers: Yediot Ahronot, Maariv and
Haaretz. In addition, all the weekly Maariv-chain local newspapers
were thoroughly searched for relevant articles.
2. Television channels Reports and interviews were gathered from the
following channels: Channel 1, Channel 2, Channel 5 and Channel
5 . The first two are general channels, carrying daily sports news
reports. Channels 5 and 5 are sports channels, both broadcasting
daily half-hour sports news magazines.
3. Internet websites Daily articles and interviews from the following
websites were examined: Sport5.co.ilOne.co.ilYnet.co.il,
NRG.co.il and Haaretz.co.il. The first two sites on this list are
exclusively devoted to sport. The last three are general news sites,
operated by, but separate from, the three major printed Israeli 
dailies. Each of these websites includes a substantial section
dedicated to sports.
4. Internet surfers’ talkbacks In addition to articles and interviews,
the internet makes it possible to follow surfers’ responses to
articles and news, often referred to in the literature as ‘talkbacks’
(e.g. Hecht 2003; Sikron et al. 2008). Talkbacks are short interactive
responses, something of a mix between a chat, a forum and
a blog, mostly appearing at the end of articles (Kohn and Neiger
2007). The talkbacks phenomenon has won great popularity in
Israel and in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Poland,
but is less prevalent in Western Europe and North America. While
many English forums and blogs offer readers an opportunity to
respond, this option is not available in most major online journals
and newspapers in the English language.
The relatively new talkbacks phenomenon has yet to be thoroughly
examined by media scholars. Studies show that readers who write
responses to printed newspapers tend to express resolved and often
extreme stands regarding controversial issues (Eyal 1983). Internet
talkbacks should therefore be treated carefully and not be considered
as representative of public currents and views. Still, talkbacks are
undoubtedly an important part of today’s public discourse. Internet
surfers are exposed to them and might be affected by them in much the
same way they are affected by articles published in newspapers or
appearing on the web. One may even argue that, since they are
commonly perceived as representing the ‘voice of the people’ rather
than that of the elites, talkbacks may have an even greater effect on
some publics than the articles they follow.
Talkbacks enable surfers to become part of the knowledge
producing community, while preserving their anonymity if they wish.
Moreover, the analysis of talkbacks is compatible with more recent
approaches to media studies, emphasizing not only the text, but also
its mediation and interpretation by readers (Hall 1999 [1980]). Some
even see talkbacks as an opportunity to develop a true public sphere,
one which is open for those who were previously blocked by
institutional gatekeepers from the intellectual elites (Hecht 2003). We
look here at responses to a limited number of reports on Palestinian
players’ expressions of political opinions. In each of these cases, all the
talkbacks related to an article appearing in either Ynet or NRG
websites were monitored.
Over all, we examined over 200 long reports, articles and interviews
from the written press, television and internet websites. In addition,
367 internet surfers’ talkbacks were examined. Finally, we watched
over 400 broadcast sports news magazines and about 100 full soccer
matches throughout the four years of the study.

Findings
Sports and politics: never shall the two meet?
The treatment of political statements by Palestinian players follows an
unwritten rule dictating the strict separation of sports and politics.
According to this rule, sports are a clean and fair field of play, which
must be depoliticized and carefully guarded from being contaminated
by the sludge of politics. Whereas politics is often conceived as the
field of treachery, deceit, shady deals, lies and half-truths, sports are
constructed as the epitome of fair play, decency, honesty and
comradeship. This dichotomy and the contempt for established politics
are reflected in the words of publicist Daniel Ben Simon following the
success of Palestinian players in the Israeli national team: ‘Sports,
more specifically soccer, did for the Arabs in Israel what decades of
politics only ruined’ (Haaretz, 1 April 2005). Palestinian soccer players
are well aware of this demand to separate politics and sports. Over the
five years of our study, we found only a handful of cases in which
Palestinian players clearly expressed political views or talked about
issues that pertained to discriminatory politics, the relationships
between Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Reporters, hoping to produce sensational paper-selling headlines,
often ask about these issues, but the players make noticeable efforts
to dodge such attempts to ‘drag them into talking politics’.
One common question pertains to the willingness (real or hypothetical)
of the Palestinian players to sing the Israeli anthem, Hatikva,
which is highly charged with the emotions and aspirations of the
Jewish people and has no relevance for other citizens. The discomfort
of the players when such questions arise is evident. They usually
attempt to evade the issue, with claims such as, by player Salah
Hasarma, ‘I don’t know the words of the anthem’ (Yediot Ahronot,
6 October 2002) or, by former player Rifat Turk, ‘I am not a singer’
(Zman Tel Aviv, 29 August 2002). In other cases they simply refuse to
answer the question, ‘to avoid complications’ (e.g. player Walid Bdeir
in an interview to Channel 2 on 15 April 2003). Such responses
indicate that the Palestinian players have learned that refusal to sing
the anthem or questioning its exclusively Jewish nature are likely to
invoke severe criticism from the Jewish public.
The one exception to the no-politics rule is what one may call
‘coexistence talk’. Positive statements that praise Arab-Jewish coexistence
and talk about the contribution of sports to this coexistence are
gladly cited and highly commended by Jewish media and public
figures. Publicists and journalists see them as a show of good will and
use them to ‘prove’ the claim that coexistence actually depends first
and foremost on the willingness of the Arab minority to blend in.
Thus, for example, publicist Moshe Elad, a reserve army colonel
studying Palestinian society, commended the willingness of Arab
soccer player Abbas Suan to sing the national anthem. Elad wrote
on NRG that this is ‘a true message for every Israeli Jew . . . a
significant change in the tolerance level of a proud Arab citizen . .  .
toward the Jewish public, and perhaps also the other way around’
(NRG, 10 April 2005). Later on in the same op-ed Elad stressed the
difference between the players and the Israeli Arab politicians: ‘The
mature messages expressed by the representative Arab soccer players
prove once again that the opinions of parliament members . . . do not
necessarily represent the Arab public.’
In Elad’s view, Arab parliament members in Israel do not represent
the true voice of the Arab public. This is a popular view among Israeli
Jews, who often argue that Arab politicians’ ‘extreme’ statements
neither represent nor help the Arab public. Soccer players, it may
seem, have the potential to distinguish themselves from the politicians
and bring the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ voice of the Arab public, a voice of
reason, peace and compliance with the demands of the Jewish
majority.
‘Play Soccer and keep quiet’: policing and silencing practices
What happens when the no-politics rule is breached and Palestinian
players dare talk about sensitive political issues and criticize Israeli
policies towards the Arab minority? To be sure, these are rare
occasions, and the responses they arouse may explain why. When
such a thing occurs, sports managers, journalists and fans line up to
denounce the ‘deviant’ player and demand that he apologize and
admit his ‘mistake’. They reproach him for stirring up strife and
demand that he renounce his ‘divisive statements’ and express his
‘loyalty’ to Israel. Below we bring three cases that illustrate this
pattern of policing Palestinian players and silencing their political
speech.
Azmi Nassar
The first case is that of the late Azmi Nassar, a past soccer player who
was the best-known Israeli-Palestinian soccer coach. In 2003, when his
Arab team, Maccabi Akha Nazareth, climbed into the premier soccer
league, Nassar gave an exuberant speech that followed the coexistence
rhetoric:
Today I showed the politicians who speak about peace what real
peace is. I beat them all; even [Ariel] Sharon and [Yasser] Arafat
[then leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority]. Look at the
love around you Arabs, Jews, Druze, Muslims, and Christians. . .  .
This is how it should be. (Ynet, 24 May 2003)
In spite of their pacifying and convivial spirit, Nassar’s innocent words
created a stir because they were interpreted as implying that both
leaders carried the same responsibility for the prolonged conflict.
Danny Noyman’s soccer commentary on radio illustrates this
response: ‘What are these talks? Nassar should have said: ‘‘We are
all with Sharon; we are all against Arafat’’’ (Reshet Bet, 5 May 2003).
A week later the daily Maariv carried a long interview with Nassar,
in which he reiterated his belief in coexistence. Commending Arab and
Jewish harmony he talked about his Jewish wife and his son who has a
Hebrew name. Later in the interview Nassar talked about his dream to
coach both the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem and the Israeli national
team. Once again, Nassar’s pacifying statement was met with
suspicion rather than with approval. The reporter, Poriya Gal, felt
the need to clarify that ‘Nassar is well aware that [his wish] is a
provocation’ (Maariv, May 2003). Beitar Jerusalem is infamous for its
right-wing and racist fans, and the appointment of an Arab to coach
the national team is unlikely. But, rather than commending Nassar’s
optimism, the interviewer perceived Nassar’s vision as a provocation
and thus delineated the narrow limits of the freedom allowed to
Palestinian speakers.
Najwan Ghrayib
A second case illustrating the policing of the speech of Israeli
Palestinian athletes is that of Najwan Ghrayib. Ghrayib, who played
with distinction for the Israeli national team, gave an interview in
January 2003 to Haifa’s local newspaper, Kolbo. Talking at the height
of the second Intifada, he breached the conventional norms and talked
about politics explicitly:
[Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Prime Minister] is responsible for the
death of many people in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. . . . He
comes from a party that hates Arabs. He is not better than Saddam
Hussein. Look what he’s doing in the occupied territories. . . . Israeli
Arabs can only advance up to a certain point. This is the result of
racism. After two years in the national team, in which I excelled, a
newspaper article demanded to throw me out [for not singing the
national anthem] . .  . and they did. . .  . I am Palestinian and this
cannot be erased. I dream to score a goal for the Palestinian national
team. (Ynet, 23 January 2003)
Although rarely expressed so unswervingly by Arab sports figures,
such views are widely accepted among the Arab public (Rouhana 1997;
Rouhana and Ghanem 1998; Suleiman 2002) and even among some
Israeli Jews. These realities notwithstanding, Ghrayib’s words raised        a
commotion. Parts of the interview were published on the internet
website Ynet on 23 January 2003, yielding a flood of angry responses,
316 within three days. The vast majority of these talkbacks harshly
criticized Ghrayib, taking one of three major forms. First, many
talkbackers denied that Arabs in Israel are being discriminated
against: ‘As someone who got an opportunity equal to that of a Jew,
Ghrayib should be ashamed of himself. Despite what he says, Arabs
here do well. There are a lot of doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Ghrayib is just a soccer player.’
Second, many other talkbackers used invective directed at the player
and the whole Arab public: ‘a primitive racist’; ‘a miserable good
for-nothing’; ‘an insignificant person’; ‘murderers’. Others chose to
focus on the question of Israeli Arabs’ loyalty to the state and their
belonging to the Israeli collective: ‘If someone like Ghrayib, who
played for the national team and got an equal opportunity . . . talks
like this, he should be deported.’
A third type of response derided the political pursuit of soccer
players. One of them suggested: ‘Mr. Ghrayib, too bad you are wasting
your talent on politics, which in any case won’t do you any good. It’s
clear that to handle the ball one doesn’t need high intelligence.’
Another talkbacker wrote: ‘Your brains are in your shoes, so keep
talking with your legs. This is less harmful.’
The views found among talkbackers were voiced by media people as
well. Following the interview, a panel of senior coaches, ex-players
and soccer commentators discussed it in a weekly TV magazine
(Channel 1, 25 January 2003). They all noted that the player’s citations
were ‘severe’ and ‘perturbing’. Commentator Shlomo Scharf, former
coach of the Israeli national team, claimed that ‘these are grave
expressions, and Ghrayib must be severely punished for uttering them’.
Past goal-keeper, Bonnie Ginzburg, who led the discussion, asked the
participants: ‘Should Ghrayib be allowed to play for the national
team?’ Much like the internet surfers, the participants in the televised
discussion did not see a need to explain what was so ‘perturbing’ in
what Ghrayib had said and assumed that the gravity of the words was
self-evident. Athletes, it seems, are allowed to express only mainstream
hegemonic positions. There was only one exception to this view,
Haaretz reporter Ronen Zaritzky, who belittled the significance of
soccer players’ political statements and asked the other reporters to
‘bite their tongue and forgive, just as [Arab] players do every week’ in
response to the all-too-common racist insults of sports fans (Haaretz,
26 January 2003).
The end of the Ghrayib affair reaffirmed the discursive rules limiting
political expressions of Arab players. Deterred by the harsh responses,
Ghrayib issued an apology, claiming that he was ‘sorry if what he said
hurt anyone or was misunderstood. . . . Some of it was said jokingly’
(Ynet, 30 January 2003). Skander Hadad, the Arab manager of
Maccabi Akha Nazareth (Ghrayib’s club), was also fast to clarify that
Ghrayib’s words did not reflect the views of his club. To make sure that
the embarrassment does not recur, Hadad issued a formal notice,
forbidding all the team’s players to express political opinions publicly.
Abbas Suan
The third case that demonstrates the work of the Hebrew media in
silencing the Palestinian players is that of Abbas Suan. Like Ghrayib,
Suan excelled in the Israeli premier league with his Arab team,
Sakhnin, and consequently joined the Israeli national team during its
2006 World Cup campaign. Less than two months after his last-minute
equalizer in the home game against the Irish national team, and just
before the return match against the Irish team, Suan was quoted in
Ynet: ‘God willing, we will take this opportunity. Ireland is the best
team in our group. We want to go there, get through the game and,
God willing, win and make the nation happy’ (Shalev 2005). This
statement clearly conveys a sense of belonging to the Israeli collective
and, as can be expected, was received favourably by talkbackers.
Almost all of them were supportive of Suan and wished him and the
national team luck.
Three months later, just before the national team played the
Ukraine, Suan was interviewed by Aviad Pohoryles of NRG. This
time, however, Suan, guided by the reporter’s questions, talked politics.
When referring to Israel’s pending 2005 retreat from the Gaza strip he
said: ‘I cannot see anything that would obstruct the retreat. No
extremist, no matter how disturbed, can stop this move’ (NRG,
15 August 2005). The reporter then asked about the attempt of Eden
Nathan-Zada, a right-wing extremist, to stop the retreat by conducting
a terrorist attack against Israeli Arabs. On 4 August 2006 Nathan
Zada, dressed in Israel Defence Forces uniform, opened fire inside a
bus in the northern town of Shfar’am (Shafamru), killing four Israeli
Arab civilians and wounding twenty-two others. Nathan-Zada was
restrained by other passengers, cuffed and then beaten to death by the
angry crowd while still on the bus. Suan:
How can someone do this? Sit in a bus with a driver who just
served you water, and then suddenly get up and kill people. He is
not a man, he is an animal. Did he think he would get out alive?
I do not support taking another person’s life, but what could come
out of an investigation into Zada’s killing? It is very good for the
state, and also for Zada, that he is dead. . . . His death calmed
things down.
When the reporter asked Suan how he saw the future of Jerusalem,
Suan again replied with surprising candour, going beyond the regular
evasive replies of players when talking about contentious politics:
The major issues are Jerusalem and the right of return [for Palestinian
refugees]. They’ll find a solution for the right of return, but the
mosque on the Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa, should be Muslim. It would
have been best if Jerusalem was a free city, open to all, but I don’t think
this will work out. In the end West Jerusalem is going to be Israeli, and
East Jerusalem Palestinian. This is bound to happen.
Much as in the case of Najwan Ghrayib, Suan’s opinions are typical
among the Israeli Arab community (Smooha 2004). Yet, it is a voice
that most Israeli Jews do not wish to hear. The interview drew fifty
one talkbacks from internet surfers, and almost all callously
reproached Suan and demanded his punishment. The responses were
about evenly divided between those personally attacking Suan and the
Palestinians in general and those calling on Suan to keep quiet,
reminding him that he is ‘just a soccer player’ who should stick to what
he knows best and leave politics to those more qualified to handle such
issues.
Many responses of the former type adopted a harsh language, using
phrases such as ‘villain’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘dog’, ‘dirty Arab’, ‘Arab human
waste’ and other creative invective. Some talkbackers made a point of
reminding Suan that many more terror attacks were conducted by
Palestinians than by Jews, treating Arab culture as inferior (‘Even after
a hundred years among Jews, they will still remain animals’). Others
went further, suggesting that Suan should be expelled from the
national team or better yet leave the country (along with all the other
Palestinian citizens according to some).
Responses of the second type focused on silencing Suan. Some cited
the ‘no-politics rule’, reminding Suan and the website editors that
sports and hard-line politics must be kept strictly separated: ‘You are
an athlete [so] stay out of politics’ and ‘Hello, this is the sports section.
The politics section is for this type of articles. Give us some peace and
quiet’. Many others simply ordered Suan to keep his mouth shut,
mostly justifying it with him being a soccer player: ‘I suggest that you
shut up and focus on soccer’; ‘Stop yapping and play soccer’; ‘Why are
you shoving your nose? You better stick to playing soccer.’
These responses all share a common strain. They all refuse to listen
to what Suan has to say and wish to silence his voice or sanction him
for what he already said. Countering this tendency is a talkbacker who
called himself ‘a sane Zionist’, one of the few surfers who supported
Suan:
[Suan] is the most authentic representative of the sane Arab-Israeli
public. . . . Abbas always sincere feels the pain of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict.
. .  . He is the true Israeli sportsman in every
sense starting with his heroic goal in Ramat-Gan [Suan’s equalizer
against the Irish national team] and moving to his humbleness and
courage.
This uncommon perspective may teach us about the potential of
Arab soccer players to penetrate into the public sphere and carry
messages and opinions that the Jewish public rarely hears. These
athletes, playing for Jewish clubs or for the Israeli national team, often
win the support of fans, become public figures and are thus in a
position to speak out and express the voice of a public that commonly
remains voiceless. However, many in the Jewish public, as reflected in
the internet talkbacks, refuse to listen to what Suan and his colleagues
have to say or, as one of the talkbackers puts it, ‘Suan, Why can’t you
just be a good Arab?’
‘If you are Palestinian, go live in Palestine’: denying hybrid identities
During the aforementioned interview with Najwan Ghrayib (Ynet,
23 January 2003) the player talked about his Palestinian identity and
identification with the Palestinian tradition and land. This part of the
interview stirred the highest amount of media agitation. Anthropologist
Danny Rabinowitz (1993) claims that using the term ‘Palestinian’ when
referring to the Arab citizens in Israel stirs uncomfortable emotions
among Israeli Jews, who distinguish between Palestinians who live in the
occupied territories with whom Israel is engaged in a bloody conflict
and those living in Israel and having Israeli citizenship. In the official as
well as in popular discourse, the latter are referred to as ‘Israeli Arabs’,
as if they were an entirely different nation than Palestinians in the
occupied territories and in exile.
Some scholars also argue that the Israeli and the Palestinian
identities are contradictory options from which Arab-Palestinian
citizens of Israel must choose only one; the strengthening of one
necessarily means the weakening of the other (Rekhes 1989).
According to this view, when Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel speak of
themselves as ‘Palestinian’ they convey their wish to annihilate Israel
as a Jewish state. Furthermore, according to Rabinowitz, the term
‘Palestinians’ reminds Jews of the Palestinian past of Israel before the
1948 war and thus threatens the perception of the country as
belonging solely to Jews (see also Yiftachel 1999).
Many of the talkbacks on Ynet following Ghrayib’s interview
reflected these apprehensions. The talkbackers doubted the loyalty of
Ghrayib and other Palestinian players to the Israeli state. Some even
expressed their fear that the players, ‘just like every other Palestinian
citizen’, are only waiting for the right time to join actively in the
violent struggle of their brothers in the occupied territories. Many of
the talkbackers claimed that someone who sees himself as a Palestinian
should not be allowed to live in Israel. They suggested that Ghrayib
should move (or be moved) to the occupied territories (‘If you are
Palestinian, go live in Palestine’).
This negation of Palestinian identity is not unique to talkbackers; in
fact, it is very common in Israeli media in general. Following the daily
media coverage of the players reveals that their Arab/Palestinian
affiliation is mostly left out. In the few instances in which it is
mentioned it is mostly associated with terrorist attacks by Palestinians
inside Israel. For example, in an interview with Salem Abu Siam, who
played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the reporter, Maor Zcharya, asked: ‘How
do you feel in days of terror attacks? Are you upset?’ (Zman Tel Aviv,
10 July 2002). Abu Siam answered that ‘during these days no one talks
politics’. Similarly, in a documentary on the European games of
Maccabi Haifa, broadcast on Channel 2, Palestinian identity was tied
to terror attacks. The documentary followed the success of the team in
the European arena during the last few months of 2002. It went back
and forth between the games and the many terror attacks that
tormented Israel during the same period. Following each attack, the
creators of the documentary turned to Walid Bdeir, Haifa’s Israeli
Palestinian player, to collect his response to the event. Bdeir preferred
not to respond.
Questions of this sort, when directed exclusively to Palestinian
players, put them in an impossible defensive position, because they
associate the Arab players with those acts, as if asking the players to
take some responsibility for them. The media demand that the players
keep reproving the attacks conducted by the Palestinians in the
occupied territories. In doing so they are expected by the journalists to
draw a strict line between themselves, ‘the Israeli Arabs’ and the
Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also between them and
Palestinian identity, associated only with violence and terror attacks.
The rules of the game seem to be set: the reporters ask questions which
are bound to make the players feel uncomfortable, and the players
prefer not to answer these questions, realizing that any response they
give would inevitably play along with the discourse that ties Palestinian
identity to terrorism. Their attempts to bypass this trap are nevertheless
often interpreted as condoning Palestinian terrorism.

Conclusion
While some sociology of sport scholars believe that sport stars may
serve both as role models and as the genuine representatives of their
underprivileged public, others hold that the field of sport reflects the
tendencies of the larger society and helps to maintain the social
dominance of the hegemonic groups. In this paper we examined these
opposing assumptions by following the way Israeli media treat
political statements by Palestinian athletes.4
Our findings demonstrate
that, at least in the media field, the latter view is supported. Israeli
media discourse is by and large intolerant towards views that challenge
its nationalistic fundamentals. The same discursive rules are evident in
the way both the sport media and fans respond to opinions expressed
by Arab soccer players. While the talkbackers’ responses tend to be
more aggressive and vicious than those of journalists and commentators,
the spirit of the two groups studied is similar: both rebuff
Palestinian players’ political statements and refuse to sympathize or
engage with them in a serious dialogue.
When the Palestinian players dare to make critical statements, a very
common response is to draw a strict dividing line between ‘clean’
sports and ‘dirty’ politics, claiming that the former must remain clearly
separated from the latter. Sports commentators and internet surfers
call on the Arab athletes to leave politics to the politicians and avoid
‘sticking their noses’ into something they know nothing about. Thus,
when the players express their dissatisfaction with the way Palestinian
citizens are treated by the state or by their Jewish fellow citizens, or
when they convey empathy with their brethren under Israeli occupation
in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, their statements, moderate
and careful as they are, meet with outrage. The public discourse puts
them back ‘in their place’ and reminds them that they are neither
qualified nor have the moral authority to represent the Arab public.
Yet, this supposedly strict divide between sports and politics is much
less impermeable than one would guess based on the harsh censure
that Arab players receive for mingling politics and sports. First,
statements in which the Arab players speak favourably about Israel
and their positive experiences in it statements that sustain the self
righteous belief that Israel is the progressive liberal democracy it
claims to be are commended and celebrated. Second, Jewish players
who talk about their political views are treated differently from the
Palestinians. Even when they express racist views, their declarations
receive much less condemnation from reporters or from internet
surfers. Such statements may still meet condescending responses,
reminding them that ‘their brains are in their shoes’. However, they are
usually condoned as immature and do not rouse the same uproar as
those of the Palestinian players.
Third, while the Arab players cannot cash in on their success, Jewish
journalists and publicists do cash in on the success of Arab players and
teams. This success, as well as the very participation of Arab athletes
and teams in Israeli sports, is exploited to boost a desirable political
image of Israel as an egalitarian society. Journalist Jojo Abutbul, for
example, following the success of Abnaa Sakhnin, wrote that
Sakhnin’s players ‘proved that if one really wanted, one could make
it without having to hide behind claims of being a deprived minority’
(Yeidot Ahronot, 20 May 2004). Soccer commentator and ex-national
team coach Shlomo Sherf wrote in Yediot Ahronot: ‘When other
nations scold us for our behaviour and question our right to live here,
Sakhnin displays the coexistence between us and the Arab minority in
Israel’ (Yediot Ahronot, 19 April 2004). Even the Minister of Education
at that time, Limor Livnat, claimed that ‘the fact that an Arab team
won the State Cup testifies on the maturity of Israeli society’ (Yediot
Ahronot, 19 April 2004). Thus, while the Palestinians are not allowed
to mix sport and politics and complain about discrimination, Jewish
speakers do mix the two spheres in order to ‘prove’ that discrimination
does not exist.
Finally, ignoring the sports-politics divide they have created in their
responses to the political assertions of Arab players, sports journalists
provoke Palestinian players to talk politics and keep reminding them
of their otherness. Thus, they are often required to comment on their
feelings in the wake of a terrorist attack committed by Palestinians
from the occupied territories as if they were somehow responsible for
those attacks. Anticipating their difficulty in singing ‘the soul of a Jew
yearns . . . to be a free people in our land’ (part of Hatikva, the Israeli
national anthem) they are asked hypothetically whether they would
sing it if and when they get to the occasion on which it is ceremonially
sung (in games of the national team or before the cup final). Any
attempt to shirk such questions or any hint that a Palestinian player
avoids identifying with national (Jewish) symbols is eagerly seized by
sensation-seeking journalists as evidence of the players’ disloyalty and
lack of gratitude for being given the opportunity to develop a
professional career in a Jewish state.
Summarizing our findings, it is evident that the Arab-Palestinian
soccer players who excel on the turf are prevented from serving as a
channel to convey the voice of Palestinian citizens in Israel. When they
try to fulfil such a role, they are vehemently silenced and sent back to
the turf. Paradoxically, the attempts of Arab-Palestinian politicians to
carry the same voice are also futile. On top of being politicians
(making them unreliable in the eyes of many), they are often described
as traitors, backstabbing and promoting self-interests rather than
voicing the authentic needs of the Arab public in Israel. Thus, when
Israeli Palestinian demands are averred by politicians, they are pushed
aside as extreme voices of politicians who are ‘out of touch’
with ‘regular’ people. When such demands come from grass-roots
representatives the athletes the response is ‘keep sports clean from
politics’ and do not talk about issues you know little about.
The potential of successful Arab-Palestinian players to serve as
catalysts for Arab-Jewish appeasement and as channels to convey the
voice of Palestinian citizens in Israel is not realized. While Palestinian
players and coaches express their willingness to advance integration
(see also Sorek 2007), the Jewish party typically rejects such gestures
and demands that the Palestinians fully accept Jewish narratives and
views. The Israeli case thus suggests that the integrative role of sport
can be achieved only when the rival parties see the necessity of a
compromise; when one powerful party believes that justice is fully on
its side, the concessions made by the weaker side are ignored and
reconciliation is rejected.
Notes
1. When we talk about Palestinians in this article we refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel
and not to their compatriots in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. In Israeli political
discourse the terms used to refer to these citizens Arabs, Palestinians, Arab-Palestinians,
etc. are full of meaning and contentious. We use them interchangeably.
2. Two famous examples used to demonstrate this are those of the black boxer
Muhammad Ali in the United States and the aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman in Australia.
3. In other research (Shor and Yonay 2009) we have demonstrated that functionalist views
of this type also dominate Israeli media.
4. It is important to note here that the Hebrew media are not the only agents working to
discipline the national and political aspirations of the Arab minority in Israel. Various state
and governmental agencies (including of course the security forces), along with the legal
system and the substantial economic dependency of the Arab sector on the Jewish one, all
have an important role in this ongoing process.

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ADDRESS: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University
of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa 31905, Israel.
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