Israel | Bnei Sakhnin, by cultivating football, hopes to harvest peace

Sakhnin’s Israeli Cup victory was heralded by many journalists, politicians and citizens as an example of Israeli democracy and equal opportunity for all. The team was truly integrated, with similar numbers of Jewish and Arab players (along with several members from Brazil, Eastern Europe and African states), a Jewish coach and an Arab manager. Relations among the players were warm.

In Sons of Sakhnin, veteran goalkeeper Meir Cohen talks of how “I made history as a Jewish captain in an Arab team. Here there are no Jews or Arabs. I have been in Sakhnin five years already, and these people love me and I love them. We brought back respect to Sakhnin.” Other players echo this sentiment as does the (Muslim) chairman, Mazen Genaim, who says, “We are more than a team, we are a family.” For once, this old sports cliché rings true.

Bnei Sakhnin FC

Sakhnin FC’s fans are town residents—other Arab Israeli citizens—but also Jews from the neighboring communities and politically progressive Jewish residents of the big cities, who proudly display the team’s red-and-white banners and its logo of a horse standing atop a soccer ball.

The team’s balancing act between various nationalities and religions is but another in the town’s long history. Sikhnin means “the house of workers” in Aramaic, and Sukhsikha, the town’s Hebrew name, is derived from a Hebrew root for oil manufacturing. First mentioned as an indigo-dye center in a 15th-century B.C.E. monument to Egyptian ruler Thutmose II, during Roman rule, in the centuries before and after Christ, Sakhnin was a thriving Jewish town and a center of rabbinic learning. In the centuries since it has come under the rule of many conquerors, managing to survive.

In the war of 1948, most residents chose to remain in the new state. Many speak Hebrew well, study Jewish history and Hebrew literature in the schools and maintain commercial and social ties with Jews living in the area. As sociologist Tamir Sorek has shown, soccer now functions as a major integrative element in Israeli society. Yet this integration is not smooth; strong feelings of discrimination linger. Land expropriations by the state, restrictions on building new homes, inequality in budget allocations and the building of a military base nearby led former mayor Mustafa Abu Raya to state that “this is a wounded and disappointed town.” In 1976, these feelings and realities erupted. Sakhnin was the site of the first “Land Day” protests, resulting in the deaths of six residents in clashes with Israeli security forces. In 2000, during acts of solidarity with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, two more were killed. A monument at the center of town commemorates these bloody events.

Despite this recent history, the Jewish players and coach were made welcome. During the celebrations after the Cup final victory, Israeli and Palestinian flags were raised side by side. Yet being accepted and valued by the Israeli public is not always easy. Players are subjected to racist taunts and death threats, most often when facing Beitar Jerusalem, the team identified with the political right. Nationalistic Israeli minister Avigdor Lieberman also stoked the volatile mix by calling for the team’s expulsion from the Israeli league. As in places of ethnic, religious or nationalistic strife, whether Scotland or the former Yugoslavia, soccer has been a site where tensions play out.

“We wanted to see if the team can bring people together and for 90 minutes suspend suspicion and hatred,”says Sons of Sakhnin producer Roger Bennett. “The answer was yes, but with many nuances, as the situation is very complex.” As a truly integrated team, Sakhnin serves as an example of how the two nations might work together toward common goals. Other hopeful models include integrated teams during the Ottoman and British rule of the country, especially in “mixed” cities such as Tiberias and Jaffa. In the past decade an increasing number of Arab players have joined the elite teams and have made their mark in the national team as well.

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