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

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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)

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