Maccabi Haifa Wild Boars amongst those calling for equality and inclusion after recent conflict. Itay Goder reports
Israeli rugby teams show solidarity with Palestine
During the military confrontation between Israel and Palestine last month, Maccabi Haifa Wild Boars were due to play Yizreel Rugby Club. Both teams had endured a long break from rugby due to Covid-19 and had been preparing for a return to action having been vaccinated in February.
However, as a training session ahead of the match drew to a close, Maccabi Haifa manager Netanel Amitai felt that something was amiss. He says: “Our team is a microcosm of Israeli society in terms of the human mix: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze. We play together, we have inner humour and mostly try to pour a little logic and calm into the charged atmosphere of the Middle East.
“But shortly after the coach decided to whistle for the end of training, I felt there was a problem. I decided to take some guys for a chat.”
In the following minutes, the seriousness of the situation became clear to him: in light of the riots in cities throughout Israel, the country’s Higher Arab Monitoring Committee had declared a general strike and players didn’t feel right playing rugby.
“Our public is under attack,” said tighthead Baheej Bathish. “We cannot remain indifferent.”
Fellow prop Raoof Korabi added: “We are not going to get to the game. It’s not just our problem, you know. Our protest space is shrinking and part of this process is blaming the Palestinian Arab public living in Israel. Israeli society is increasingly abandoning the legitimacy of protest. We must do something.”
The diversity that characterised the team was being put to the test and Amitai decided on two immediate actions. In consultation with the Israeli Rugby Association and Yizreel Rugby Club, it was decided to postpone the game. “At the same time, we decided not to pass over in silence the experience of our players,” he says. “We decided to write a manifesto.”
That manifesto read: “Maccabi Haifa Wild Boars condemns all racist, nationalist or religious violence, in any configuration. We believe in coexistence, equality and inclusion, and stand by our brothers and sisters who suffer from low-level racism. We will continue to practise, play and win together.”
The short and sensitive text stood out, especially in light of the fact that other sports in Israel were silent in the face of violence and missiles. “I don’t really care what others don’t do,” says Ofer Fabian, president of the Israeli Rugby Association. “I am much more proud of our actions.
“I am very happy to say that perfection, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect characterise our sport. Although Israeli rugby is still completely unprofessional, our players are not afraid to express a position on explosive issues, which are not necessarily part of the Israeli mainstream.
“For example, the great openness towards the LGBT community, the assimilation of the values of the game among the refugee children who came to Israel and the lack of fear of taking political positions.”
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Other clubs in the country added their voice to the chorus coming from the Haifa group. As Korabi points out: “These words were not intended only for the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. I have a family in Gaza. I have friends who play rugby there. I know it is difficult for them, I know it hurts them. We really wanted them to know that there is someone who sees them and identifies with them.”
Menachem Ben Menachem, chairman of the Maccabi Haifa Wild Boars team, had concerns “that things might be interpreted in a problematic way”, but he added: “I understand that my opinion is not the only one. There are other people whose voices need to be heard. Only with the acceptance of the other side can a real dialogue be formed.”
The club’s message also reached Gaza, but there attempts are still being made to rehabilitate and renew daily life.
“This is a very beautiful and moving tribute,” said Jamal Abu Farha, director of the Palestine Rugby Committee. “But there is still a long way to go before relations between the two countries improve.
“We receive a lot of requests for games with Israeli teams, but our feeling is that it is not yet ripe for such collaborations. But maybe in the future, inshallah.”
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