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Bnai Sakhnin Soccer Team

19 May 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Yesterday, Bnai Sakhnin, one of the two Arab soccer teams in the Premier League (Israel’s foremost professional league) won the State Cup Championship by defeating Hapoel Haifa 4-1. True, they did not win the League Championship, an honor taken by Maccabee Haifa, the team with the best season record. But the SCC trophy indicates perseverance in attaining a full string of victories in the random draw of play-offs which include the Premier League and National League (one level below the PL) teams. Every year the two top teams in the NL move up to the PL, switching places with the two last place teams in the latter. Hence a certain dynamism is ensured. Only at the outset of this year did Sakhnin move into the PL.

The team began in the Galilean Arab village of Sakhnin with local talent and today has quite a few Jewish players as well as the coach, Eyal Lachman. Like all PL teams, foreign players were acquired to boast talent. But Sakhnin is still a village team and a pride to Israeli Arabs. Too poor to afford its own stadium, home games were played in Haifa’s expansive Kiryat Eliezer stadium and fans drove close to an hour to support the club.

After their victory in the Ramat Gan national stadium, crowds poured into the streets throughout the Arab villages, especially in the Galilee, causing massive traffic jams and no little consternation among drivers. Jews in particular were worried, fearing such celebrations could turn violent as happens with soccer victories world-wide. Add to this the continuing unease after 3.5 years of Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the well remembered violence of October 2000 when 13 Arabs and one Jew were killed, negative scenarios certainly existed.

But nothing of the sort happened. People simply celebrated and many spoke of Bnai Sakhnin as the symbol of coexistence between Arabs and Jews. The team has quite a few local Jewish supporters, mostly from the Misgav Regional Council where small towns border Arab villages.

Often athletes succeed where politicians and diplomats fail. Israeli Arabs are still not part of the mainstream, but the Sakhnin soccer team is. Next year the club will be representing Israel in one of the European leagues and according to certain fans interviewed they will do so in the name of the State of Israel.

In its battle with the radicals, and in particular the Islamicists, who demand complete separation from the Israeli state (and its destruction), the Bnai Sakhnin success can certainly give a boost to the moderates, who accept the existence of the state while demanding full implementation of all individual civil rights. Israeli Arabs complain of subjective discrimination, and at times see Israeli law as working to their disadvantage, especially as concerns security and when defining the aims of the state through Jewish nationalist terms.

It remains to be seen whether the Bnai Sakhnin success heralds a new beginning. As a promising start, it would be a good idea for the Israeli Arab municipal leadership and Knesset representation to jump on the bandwagon. It is time for Israeli Arabs to join the mainstream, and not just in sports.