British writer James Montague spent three years traveling throughout the Middle East watching soccer games in order to understand the region’s societies — Jews and Arabs in Israel, Arabs and Muslims in the rest of the countries — through the prism of the world’s most popular sport. The result is “When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone” (Mainstream Publishing), 288 pages of humor, surprises and cultural insights. His chapter on Israel focuses on the interplay of sports and politics, integration and discrimination.
Q: What lessons do Israeli football — as the rest of the world calls soccer — teach about Israeli society?
A: It’s a fascinating mirror on Israeli society because, from the outside, most people view Israel as this single, uniform entity. But through football you can see the very real tensions that bubble underneath: left versus right, European versus Middle Eastern Jew, secular versus religious. After all Israel is a project in mass immigration from places as far a field and culturally diverse as 1980s Ethiopia and post-Second World War Poland. It’s remarkable the level of assimilation that has taken place, but football lets you understand these frictions that go on almost unnoticed by the rest of the world.
Sport is supposed to be a unifying factor. Does football play this role between Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian territories?
I’d like to say that it does, like in Iraq where the national football team is one of the few symbols of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish unity. But take the vicious rivalry between Bnei Sakhnin, Israel’s predominantly Arab team, and Beitar Jerusalem, who have a right-wing, racist fan base who rioted when an Arab was mentioned as a possible future player for the club. The match, and the violence that follows it, reflects how a sizeable number of the population view Israel’s Arabs.
In the Palestinian territories it’s a little different. The Israeli national team plays with European teams because no Arab teams will play it during World Cup qualifying tournaments, and Palestine plays Asian teams.
As an outsider to the Middle East, did you have more access and acceptance, in Israel or the Arab countries, than a Jew or a Muslim might have gotten?
I think there would have been some problems for sure but not as many as you would have thought. If I was Muslim, Beitar’s fans would have ripped me limb from limb for sure. I almost got the [expletive] kicked out of me outside the Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv just for wearing a red T-shirt. They thought I might be a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan! And in Saudi Arabia it would not be a good idea to admit you’re Jewish. And admitting to being British in many Arab countries, given our support for the war in Iraq, is something you’d want to keep quiet too!