Sons of Sakhnin United was directed by Chris Browne, whose League of Ordinary Gentlemen (2004) focused on 10-pin bowlers. “This documentary is a movie about soccer in the same way George Orwell‘s Animal Farm is about horses and cows,” says the Reboot Films website. (5:33)
A small Arab Israeli town of 25,000 residents, nestled in a lower Galilee valley among fig and olive orchards, with an illustrious history and a difficult present, has become world famous within the past three years—all thanks to its soccer team. Bnei Sakhnin FC (Sons of Sakhnin) has become the representative not only of its town, Sakhnin, but of other Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel, their frustrations and aspirations, and also a model of possible coexistence between Jews and Arabs.
Two new films attempt to explain the phenomena: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler’s We Too Have No Other Land and Sons of Sakhnin United. The idea for Sons of Sakhnin United—on which this article focuses—developed after the team won the Israeli Cup in 2004 and gained, thanks to its never-say-die attitude and its blend of Jewish, Muslim and Christian players, a large following in Israel and abroad.
“We wanted to show, through the prism of soccer, a game we love, the inner workings of an Arab town and how it, and its team, deal with larger political and social questions,” says producer Michael Cohen. The producers are founders of the new Jewish organization Reboot, whose goal is to help Jews grapple anew with questions of identity, community and meaning in a way that will “make the traditions vital and resonant in our own lives.” A magazine, conferences and discussion groups are part of this effort, as is the film. While a film about a sports team representing an Arab town might not appear at first glance to have much to do with those goals, the producers felt that addressing Jewish-Arab relations is essential and that the story of Bnei Sakhnin offered an opportunity to do so.
One theme of Sons of Sakhnin is how a financially strapped team might survive among the wealthy and powerful of the league, but the focus is on its careful navigation in Israel’s explosive political waters, a balancing job it manages with much skill. “I was impressed with the team’s willingness to work with the state, within the state, which is not easy, as Israeli Arabs have grievances against their lot, but at the same time, also respect the state and its accomplishments, feeling they are fortunate in comparison to those living in the territories,” Cohen says. Relations between minority and majority groups, as well as how sports express grievances and encourage discontent but also help redress them, are some questions that the team and the film raise—questions that have no simple answers.
The film is comprised of interviews, segments of games and scenes shot around the town, including at a local mosque, where a prayer for the team is recited, and in the home of the team’s most famous player, Abbas Suan. The midfielder became famous for a late goal in Mar 05 against Ireland, helping keep alive Israel’s hopes for the 2006 World Cup finals. He is also known for his thoughtful words about being an Arab player who represents a country whose national anthem, played before every international match, proclaims the deep connections that Jews have to the land of Zion but ignores all other citizens. Having played for Bnei Sakhnin since its inception in 1996, Suan in 2006 joined Maccabi Haifa.
On 18 May 04, supporters gather at the Sakhnin stadium for the State Cup final versus Hapoel Haifa. Sakhnin won 4–1. (Der Lothar | Flickr)
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.
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.
An area of great promise has been on the youth level, with such projects as the Jaffa youth team led by Rifat Turk—the first Arab player on the Israel national team and former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv—and the Peres Center for Peace’s Twinned Peace Sport Schools initiative. Soccer camps and ongoing integrated teams have been accompanied by visits of international stars such as Ronaldo and matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid and an all-star team of Jewish, Arab Israeli and Palestinian players.
After relegation in 2006, Bnei Sakhnin managed to make it back to the premier league within a season. A new stadium, paid by the governments of Qatar and Israel, and a new sponsor, the Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, whose largesse includes ownership of Beitar Jerusalem, bode well for the team.
Sakhnin is a town rich in religious shrines. The tombs of the Muslim saints Sheikh Ibrahim and Sheikh Obeid and of second-century Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin, along with “The Cave of the Ten”—named for ten righteous men, or, according to other traditions, the Ten Commandments—have long drawn supplicants. Along with the customary wishes for fertility and healing, Arab and Jewish players and fans might now be adding a new prayer.
Tamir Sorek, “Between Football and Martyrdom: The Bi-focal Localism of an Arab-Palestinian Town in Israel,” The British Journal of Sociology 56, no. 4 (2005): 635–60. Sorek is also author of Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Related works include three other Israeli films: (1) Beit Shean: Seret milhamah (Underdogs: A War Movie; 1996), about a poor Jewish town in the Jordan Valley the struggle of its team, Hapoel Beit Shean, to survive in the Israeli top division. The film focuses on class issues and relations between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews rather than Israeli nationalism. (2) Forerunners (2004), a documentary about three players working to form a women’s team in a start-up Israeli league—a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine, a Sephardic Jew and a Christian Arab. (3) Gmar Gavi’a (Cup Final; 1991), Eran Riklis’s story of friendship between a Palestinian and Israeli fighting on opposite sides in the 1982 Lebanon War. The two are united by their love of the Italian soccer team, through which Cup Final extols the power of the game as a force for mutual recognition and understanding.
As of Jan 09, with war raging in Gaza, Bnei Sakhnin has become a focus for anti-Arab feeling in Israel, according to James Montague on the Guardian website (“The Arab-Israeli Club Bridging the Divide … and Paying the Price,” 13 Jan 09). With the side struggling in Ligat Ha’Al, Sakhnin has re-signed Suan. Suan had left Maccabi Haifa in 2007 to join Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
But it was not clear, with matches being postponed and relocated—rockets fired from Gaza are in range of stadiums in Ashkelon, Beersheba and Ashdod—if Sakhnin could continue its schedule. The football association announced that it feared potential violence in Sakhnin, where pro-Gaza rallies were staged late in 2008.
Genaim, now mayor of Sakhnin, was quoted in a popular Israeli newspaper backing Gaza and the shahids (martyrs). Later, Genaim denied using the inflammatory term and claimed that other remarks were misquoted.
Sakhnin’s matches with Beitar Jerusalem in particular, Montague writes, “are fast becoming the most brutal derbies of an already derby-packed season.”
In fact [Sakhnin] players and fans need to be joined by an armed police escort 15km outside Jerusalem every time they play a match. Last year Beitar had to play a game behind closed doors after their fans sang songs defaming the Prophet Muhammad during a cup game.
About the author
Alon Raab has written previously for The Global Game on Futbol Palestina 2006 (22 Apr 05) and Ukrainian women’s football (2 Sept 05). He teaches at the University of California–Davis and is co-editor, with John Turnbull and Thom Satterlee, of The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008).