The children running slaloms through Hapoel Katamon’s soccer field in south Jerusalem would be indistinguishable from one another, were it not for the blue and white T-shirts setting apart Arab from Jew.
Two soccer academies — one from the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa and the other from the Jewish neighborhood of Katamon — partnered last month to create Team of Equals, a joint team bringing together soccer enthusiasts across the national divide.
Incorporating roughly 100 children aged 9-12, the new team is supported by The New Israel Fund through its program “Kicking Out Racism and Violence.” According to a press statement released by NIF, the initiative’s goal is to “introduce Jewish children from West Jerusalem to Arab children from East Jerusalem in order to combat the division and hostility between them and advance a shared life in the city.”
Whether in Hebrew or Arabic, the children almost invariably said they rooted for Spanish club FC Barcelona and idolized its Argentinian forward Lionel Messi.
“I’ve been going to Hapoel Katamon soccer matches since I was three months old,” said third-grader Omri Tal-Gershkowitz, adding he liked the noise and excitement of the game. “I hope more children join so we can integrate Jews and Arabs.”
Ahmad Moussa Subhi, a sixth-grader from Beit Safafa, said he joined the team to meet new friends. He said language was no problem in communicating with his Jewish teammates, since he picked up Hebrew watching soccer and Israeli films on TV.
“I like running and the sporting spirit,” he explained.
Creating a binational team is far from simplein Israel’s capital. Beitar Jerusalem, the city’s largest team, is notorious for its fans’ anti-Arab chants. The Israeli Football Association fined the team NIS 40,000 ($10,000) in February after fans shouted racist slurs and spat in the direction of Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shemona forward Ahmad Abed during a home game in Teddy Stadium.
But Hapoel Katamon, a fan-owned club created in 2007, is meant to symbolize something completely different, said Shai Aharon, formerly the team’s star forward, who retired in 2014 to become its professional manager.
“From day one Hapoel Katamon stands for anti-racism and anti-violence,” Aharon told The Times of Israel. “All of our programs are based on mutual respect, values and community; things that are more important to us than achievements on the field.”
Team of Equals was Aharon’s brainchild, born following an arson attack against a bilingual school in Jerusalem last November.
“The attack stressed the sense that something must be done, some sort of corrective experience,” Aharon said. For him, nothing could be more natural than getting the Katamon children to play with “the children across the street.”
“Everyone will tell you that violence in sports is ugly and bad; the question is what can be done to solve the problem. The trick is to be part of the solution,” he said. “All we want to do, on our turf, is to make soccer like any other kind of leisure activity, like cinema or the theater, one you can take your wife and children to and feel comfortable.”
Itzik Shanan, director of communications at the New Israel Fund, said his organization has been working to combat racism in soccer for over a decade, both by monitoring matches and writing reports on racist incidents, and by initiating educational activities such as Kicking Out Racism and Violence. NIF’s partnership with Hapoel Katamon has been ongoing for over three years, he noted, boosted by the club’s outlook on equality and partnership as values.
“This sight is moving not only for someone working on these matters at the Fund, but also as a Jerusalemite, who lives here and wants his children to remain here,” Shanan told The Times of Israel as he watched the children practice passing. “Observe the level of cooperation, understanding and fairness taking place here.”
Children at this young age are less infused with racial and political biases than adults, allowing true teamsmanship to blossom, he added. “They come from a very genuine, innocent place. I believe that adds a lot to the potential of this collaboration,” he said.
For Salman Ammar, head of Beit Safafa’s soccer academy and a former player with Hapoel Jerusalem, endorsing the initiative was only natural. He had played in a Jewish-majority team his entire career and now sends his children to the bilingual school in Jerusalem.
“There’s nothing like sports and competitiveness to bring people together,” he said. “The idea is that Arab children and Jewish children get to know each other and realize they can live together. It’s as simple as that.”