Settling Palestinian question in ’90-minute war’

“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.

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