After the collapse of yet another round of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, the two sides agree to end the century-long conflict once and for all. A soccer match between the two national teams, to be held in a neutral stadium, will determine the fate of the warring sides. The winning nation retains sole possession of the contested land while loser’s people depart at once—the Palestinians to Saudi Arabia, the Israelis to eastern Oregon. A drastic method, to be sure, but in light of the continual bloodshed it seems like the most logical and humane solution.
For now, however, such a resolution is the province of the imagination, the creation of Israeli writer Itay Meirson in his first novel, Milchemet Tisheem Hadakot (The 90-Minute War). Israeli publisher Yedioth Ahronoth released the book in summer 08, a few months before Israel’s latest bombing campaign of Gaza.
Every Friday afternoon in Ramat Aviv, Meirson, a journalist for Tel Aviv’s weekly Ha’ir and for the website Walla, plays soccer with friends. It was at a game four years ago that the novel was born. During a recent conversation, Meirson described arriving at the field to discover an unfamiliar group playing there.
Right away heated arguments began over ownership of the place. A minute before things turned to violence, someone suggested a quick match between our best five against their best, with the winning team gaining possession. Happily, we won. I was amazed at the speed with which the other group evacuated the site, without argument, threats and saying a word. They simply accepted the verdict of the loss. Ten minutes of a soccer game easily settled a conflict that could have lasted hours and deteriorated into violence. That same evening I toyed with the question of what would happen if the Israelis and the Palestinians would conduct such a game on the “field” both claim as their own. The next day I stopped pondering and began writing.
In Meirson’s tale, the winners celebrate while the losers forfeit all national aspirations in the face of exile. The book does not reveal the match’s outcome and ends with the sound of the referee’s opening whistle, at the Estádio Algarve in Faro, Portugal. The reader is left to write the ending. I wished for resolution or, even better, a hopeful ending in which players share their common humanity and love of the game. But, according to Meirson, even before writing the first line he decided to avoid the temptation to satisfy readers’ fantasies. “This is not a book about soccer. The sport is just a parable through which I wanted to illuminate the dark and scary aspects of Israeli society. The question that needs to be asked is not what the result of the game is, but how did we get to this situation.”
The author has described Jaroslav Hašek’s 1920 novel The Good Soldier Švejk as an influence, and similar absurdity pervades The 90-Minute War. The book excels at satirizing aspects of Israeli and Palestinian society with allusions to cultural figures, fundamentalist settlers, peace activists and politicians of all stripes. Meirson mocks religious leaders, too—rabbis demand that the prime minister, who has taken over the national team, halt practices on the sabbath. The leader resembles Ehud Olmert, known, in real life, for his inability during police investigations to recall shady financial dealings but possessing a fantastic memory for Beitar Jerusalem games decades ago.
“We beseech and warn you not to conduct practices during the holy Sabbath day. We are shocked by the horrific desecration of God’s name. If however you act on behalf of the holy day, God will protect our people and lead us to victory,” they write him. “Are we asking the players to wear a kippah? To put on tefillin? To eat kosher? To separate dairy and meat dishes? We ask the minimum—not to violate the Sabbath. Is that so much to ask from a Jew?” After politicians of the religious parties threaten to topple the coalition government, lengthy negotiations produce a compromise—the team will begin its practices only after the first three stars are seen in the sky, signaling the end of the sacred day, but the coach would be allowed to start his tactical briefings two hours before. (from pages 159–63, my translation)
Meirson’s concept—heroes representing their people in battle—has literary antecedents. Hector and Achilles, David and Goliath are the most well known. In the biblical contest between the young Judean shepherd and the Philistine giant, the latter loses the contest and his head, presaging a wider Israelite victory. In the 1930s African American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling represented two opposing political ideologies when they fought in the ring. The fighters, however, became lifelong friends.
Soccer’s potential as an impetus for conflict was seen most clearly in the 1969 Soccer War, battles between El Salvador and Honduras that resulted in more than 2,000 deaths. Though the violence was rooted in long-simmering economic enmity, a series of three heated World Cup qualifying matches provided the trigger. Sometimes sports replace military battles as during the 1914 Christmas truce when German and British soldiers laid down their arms and played soccer amicably. Unfortunately, the next day they resumed slaughtering each other.
The book’s scenario reflects the importance that sports, and especially soccer, have held for Israelis and Palestinians and the way that individual and national events and aspirations have been shaped by the round ball and its mystique. These intersections have been expressed in a variety of literary works and films, and unlike the premise of Meirson’s novel, sometimes these creations portray soccer as a positive force. Films include Israeli director Eran Riklis’s Cup Final, which imagines an Israel Defense Forces soldier captured by Palestinian fighters during the 1982 Lebanon War and the friendship that develops thanks to the shared support of the Italian World Cup team. Football’s potential was also articulated by Palestinian physician and PLO leader Issam Sartawi, who, in his meetings in the 1970s with Israeli peace activists, spoke of a day when his son would play soccer with Israeli children.
As a child, Meirson played the game daily with his mates until darkness fell and recorded broadcasts of Israeli Premier League games, adding his own descriptions. In high school, he focused on theater but, two days before the final project, asked to be released so that he could attend an important game. The department head suggested that Meirson choose between theater and soccer. “Thirty minutes after this conversation, I was already in line to buy tickets at the stadium. There are millions of people in this world who like me lead completely normal lives, but who have in their head a small ‘bug’ that reminds them and those around them that they are just children.”
Meirson’s journalistic writings center on sports and politics. Recent columns analyzed the electoral collapse of the Zionist left, lambasted the surrender of Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai to the powers of the market and sympathized with the problems faced by Avi Nimni, the coach of Meirson’s favorite soccer team, the troubled Maccabi Tel Aviv. “I am aware of course that these topics are not equal in importance,” Meirson says, “but I wrote the texts with similar passion.”
While soccer is ever present in his life, contacts with Palestinians are limited.
The saddest thing is that I never had direct personal contact with Palestinians. I grew up in an atmosphere of fear and separation. As a child, I knew that there are Palestinians, but no one bothered to tell me that this country belongs to them no less than to me. I learned those things on my own. It is embarrassing and sad to admit but most Israelis hear Arabic only when they wander the streets of London or Paris. The Arabic of the Palestinians, those who live 10 minutes away from home, they simply do not hear.
The book’s refusal to offer a solution does not mean Meirson does not see one.
The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is that the solutions are on the table for many years, and the two sides do not have the courage to fulfill them. As a Jew and an Israeli I don’t think I have the right to criticize the mistakes by the Palestinian side, and there were many. My purpose is to influence the change of awareness on my side, to talk with acquaintances, with the clerk in my neighborhood grocery store, to convince colleagues that there is a different way. I am not superman and have no illusions about saving the region with my two hands. In the current conditions, manifested in unprecedented despair and lack of trust, my goal is quite modest: to create the conditions in the Israeli society that will enable it in the near future to gather the courage necessary to settle the conflict in peaceful ways. In other words, my generation will not bring peace, but it must preserve it as a possibility, and that is a lot considering the current circumstances.
I asked whether he views soccer as a source of enmity or as a path toward reconciliation.
Two opposing elements function simultaneously—one separating and the second uniting. When a mass meeting between two competing societies occurs, the differences are sharpened. This applies to class differences (Egypt’s Zamalek and Al-Ahly) religious-political (Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers) or national (Real Madrid and Barcelona). On the other hand, in a face-to-face encounter, soccer “behaves” differently and acts as a unifying element. The “we and you” is transformed into “you and I,” and that is the entire difference, exactly as happened between German and British soldiers in World War I.
Meirson’s book is currently being considered for American publication.
About the author
Alon Raab teaches religious studies at the University of California, Davis, and is coeditor, with John Turnbull and Thom Satterlee, of The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008).