Itzik Shanan and Abbas Suan watched last week as 100,000 English soccer fans sang along to a live performance by a multiracial quartet at London’s Wembley Stadium.
Shanan, who started a campaign to eliminate racism from Israeli soccer, and Suan, a well-known Arab-Israeli player, were in Britain for five days of anti-hooliganism training in advance of Israel’s hosting next month of a major international soccer tournament.
For Shanan, the operatic rendition of “Abide With Me,” a Christian hymn that has become something of a soccer anthem, was a reminder of the sport’s potential — and its pitfalls.
“It was amazingly cultural,” Shanan told JTA. “It showed me soccer can be truly a cultural event, but [also] reminded me of the long road that lies ahead of Israeli soccer until we catch up to England.”
The ground Shanan believes Israeli soccer needs to cover is not on the field.
For the past decade, England’s Football Association, or F.A., has trained dozens of Israeli activists who hope to re-create what they view as the F.A.’s success in reducing widespread displays of racism that tarnished the image of English soccer. Shanan and Suan were part of a delegation of 10 Israeli Jews and Arabs in Britain last week for F.A. training.
England is described as “a world leader in dealing with soccer racism and hooliganism” on the website of the New Israel Fund, the U.S.-based social justice group that created and bankrolls Shanan’s nonprofit, Kick Racism Out of Israeli Football.
But a recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents in English soccer, and the F.A.’s refusal to fully adopt new European countermeasures, are making some question the association’s suitability to instruct others in countering racist tendencies among fans.
“Clearly, Britain has not resolved its soccer racism and violence problem and is therefore no model for Israel,” said Manfred Gerstenfeld, a Dutch-born scholar of European anti-Semitism at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Critics such as Gerstenfeld point to a string of troubling incidents over the past year.