«NO. 290 CONSTRUCTING NATIONAL IDENTITY: THE MUSCULAR JEW VS THE PALESTINIAN UNDERDOG JAMES M. DORSEY S. RAJARATNAM SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES ...»
The Zionist employment of sports in their struggle for Jewish statehood nonetheless sparked a Palestinian national response that sought to counter the challenge in the realm of sports. Palestinian national sentiment expressed itself post-World War I through the emergence of charitable societies, women’s groups, youth organisations and sports clubs, even though Palestinian media lamented that they lacked the resources, particularly in sports, available to their Zionist counterparts. British mandate officials recognised early on that the development of separate Jewish and Palestinian sports clubs was likely to fuel nationalist friction. At the inauguration of the Jerusalem Sports Club in 1921, Jerusalem Military Governor Ronald Stores called for clubs to be inclusive and admit members 90 irrespective of their religion or beliefs.
Khalidi documented the battle over rival Jewish and Palestinian claims to land and identity waged on the soccer pitch in the decades leading up to the founding of Israel. Muslim, Christian Orthodox and secular Palestinian sports clubs reinforced national identity and constituted a vehicle to strengthen ties among different Palestinian communities. Orthodox Christians, opposed to foreign domination of their parishes, took a lead in promoting sports with the first conference of Orthodox Christian clubs in 1923 that called for the establishment of clubs across Palestine. Its call was heeded with the emergence of Orthodox clubs established in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Lod, and Akko.91 The clubs, similar to the role of the Algerian national team as a promoter of the Algerian liberation struggle during the country’s war of independence, allowed Palestinians to forge relations with other Middle Eastern and North African nations. Filastin praised in nationalistic terms the performance of the Orthodox Club of Jaffa in its 1931 encounter with a visiting Egyptian team. “The team of the Egyptian University came to Palestine and played with the Jewish teams, no Arab team applied to compete with them, except the Orthodox Club. The result was better than the game with “Maccabi”.
So it made us proud and made everyone understand that there are Arabic teams in Palestine who are skilful in this game and have the same level as the British and Jewish teams,” Filastin wrote.92 Sports clubs further created an institutional base for political organisation and served to prepare predominantly young men for social and political engagement. In an effort to forge useful relationships through soccer, Palestinians first created their own informal national team in 1910 that played
The Islamic movement, riding a wave of increasing popularity on the back of mounting public disillusion with the inability of Palestinian and Arab leaders to counter Zionist advances, convened a meeting of the Islamic Physical Training Club in 1928. The gathering attended by lawyers, journalists and politicians, including Ragheb Effendi Al-Imam, Hasan Sidqui al-Dajani, Mohammed Izzat Darwazeh and Sheikh Hassan Abu Saud, a close associate of Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin elHusseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, called for the establishment of Young Men’s Muslim Associations (YMMA) across Palestine.94 A prominent newspaper editor described the activities of the YMMA’s Nablus branch as evidence that “native sons now have the knowledge that their public welfare, and consequently their private welfare, requires bonds of unity, virtuous discord, and love to 95 exist.” Four years later, sports became a central tenant of the Arab Youth Congress headed by newspaper proprietor and politician Issa Basil Bandak. Convened in 1932, the congress was a reflection of the growing gap between Palestine’s traditional leadership and its youth.96 The divide was evident within clubs. In 1934, members of the long-standing Salesian Club in Haifa that was associated with the charitable Catholic Society of St. Francis de Sales, split off to form Shabab al-Arab because they felt that it was not nationalist enough. Shabab al-Arab was founded under the auspices of the congress which had its own annual tournament.97 “Athletic clubs were important in evoking the Palestinian national consciousness, sustaining connections between villages and cities, and developing ties with groups across the Middle East and parts of Africa. As such, this trend was contested by Zionist forces in Palestine in a struggle played out on the international stage after the re-establishment of the defunct APSF in 1944,” Khalidi wrote.98 To strengthen links with Arab neighbours, players and spectators held two minutes of silence in 1945 at the beginning of the final of the Palestinians’ first territory-wide soccer championship to commemorate the 400 protesters killed in the French bombardment of Damascus.99 93 Filastin, March 28, 1931 94 Abdelaziz A. Ayyad, Arab Nationalism and the Palestinians 1850-1939, Jerusalem: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs1989), 120 95 Bracey/Filastin. 1932. May 4 96 Ibid. Ayyad. p. 136 97 Ibid. Ayyad. p. 136 98 Issam Khalidi, “Body and Ideology Early Athletics in Palestine (1900 - 1948),” Jerusalem Quarterly, 27 (1983), 44-58 / Tamer Sorek, “Sports Column as a Site of Palestinian Nationalism in the 1940s,” Israel Affairs, 13:3 (2007),605-616 99 Ibid. Sorek, Palestinian nationalism 18 The nationalist Palestinian uprising that erupted in 1936 nevertheless allowed the PFA to briefly revalidate its claim to represent both Jews and Arabs in Palestine. With the APSF in disarray and no institutional framework, several Palestinian clubs including Jerusalem’s Arab Sports Club and Al Rawda Club and Haifa’s Shabab al-Arab re-joined the PFA to ensure that they could continue 100 playing. It was further strengthened by the creation of a short-lived league in 1942 that included Palestinian, Jewish, British and Greek teams.101 Shabab al-Arab, the nationalist club, was among the Palestinian clubs that participated.102 The APSF’s demise ironically ushered in a period of greater engagement between Zionist and Palestinian teams that in part was encouraged by perceptions in some segments of Palestinian society of sports being apolitical. It was a perception Zionists were eager to encourage. “Perhaps at first a small group of Arab sportsmen would be found, a group that would listen to our voice and claims that sport and politics should not be mixed and that the good and mutual relationship between sportsmen of both nations could bring about the improvement in the friendship in general,” wrote journalist Shimon Samet in 1937. 103 A refusal seven years later by an Egyptian military soccer team to visit Palestine to play a predominantly Jewish squad prompted the Palestinians to again organise themselves on a regional and national basis. The newly reconstituted APSF insisted in its 1944 regulation that its membership “consists exclusively of Arab, non- Jewish institutions and clubs in Palestine… All clubs must include no Jewish members, not employ Jewish referees and not by funded by Jewish sources.” 104 “The association is uncharted road in the confrontation with the Jewish Football Association,” a prominent Palestinian sports editor said.105 The regulation was more than an effort to challenge the Zionist claim of representation of Palestine, it was an attempt to project Arab Palestine as an organised sports entity in its own right, able to compete internationally and to engage the British in the waning years of their mandate. Opting for segregation in sports was in line with Filastin’s advocacy more than a decade earlier of parallel Jewish and Palestinian labour markets to counter British and Zionist policies that forced Palestinians into an increasingly untenable situation of insecure land tenure, heavy debt, and lack of investment. 106 Filastin conveniently refrained from reporting that Palestinians and Jews played in an APSF team in violation of the group’s 1946 regulations to play against other squads in Palestine.107 The segregation strategy nevertheless persuaded Palestine’s Arab neighbours to play in Palestinian rather than Zionist clubs. However, Palestinian efforts to persuade FIFA to recognise the APSF alongside the PFA fell on deaf years. It took the Palestinians half a century to achieve FIFA
Ironically, APSF had already warned two years before the establishment of the State of Israel that FIFA’s efforts to play peacemaker in the Middle East by having Jews and Palestinians represented by one organisation would fail. “Simply we could say that the members of your federation will not succeed in achieving what the British administration could not do,” the APSF said in a memo to FIFA.108 It would take the Palestinians 52 years to defeat Zionist insistence that the Palestinians did not constitute a people or a state. In achieving their goal, the Palestinians made history by becoming the first territory without a state to have a seat at the soccer world table.
The fact that it took the Palestinians half a century to become a FIFA member raises questions about soccer’s effectiveness as a tool to project nationhood. In the case of the Jewish national movement, Harif argued that the “political implications of the sports contacts with foreign countries must not give the impression that these sports meetings resulted in a substantial change in the international standing of the Yishuv,” the Jewish settlement of Palestine. Athletes, in the political scientist’s view, “first and foremost fulfilled a symbolic role as representatives of a political entity which lacked sovereignty and real power and strove to achieve independence.”109 While Haggai looked at the role of sports primarily in terms of Zionist Jewish identity, he unwittingly anticipated later concepts of the utility of sports as a soft power tool to project identity to a target audience beyond a nation’s immediate confines.
The Palestinian struggle to gain the right to represent themselves in soccer nonetheless gave birth to a strategy Palestinian soccer upholds until today: the projection of Palestinian nationhood through football. Palestinians “cannot avoid devising a way to publicise their ideas…and propagate their principles and views without being afraid of opposition or oppression. They can achieve their goal through sports as did Sweden, Czechoslovakia... and Hungary,” Filastin commented a day before the 1947 United Nations vote in favour of partitioning Palestine.110 APSF had rejected an invitation to Palestinian clubs issued by the PSA a year earlier in a bid to fend off a request by Arab soccer 111 associations to grant the Palestinian group FIFA membership.
The Palestinian efforts to join FIFA were thwarted not only by Zionist opposition but also by British concern about identity politics in sports given their experience in Egypt where Cairo’s storied Al Ahli club was a driver of the 1919 revolution and represented an anti-colonial bulwark. A 1935 official British report on youth movements in Palestine warned that Palestinian Scouts, sports and youth
Palestinian media stressed throughout this period the nationalist utility of sports in general and soccer in particular. Filastin, a twice-weekly Christian-owned newspaper published in the first 67 years of the th 20 century that pioneered Palestinian sports reporting, supported the Young Turks during Ottoman
rule and was influential in promoting Palestinian nationalism, “maintained a consistent critique:
challenging the authorities’ neglect of Arab sport and its support of Jewish sport activities. About 80 per cent of the news in Filastin’s sport section was about soccer, the most popular game in Palestine,” wrote Khalidi.113 At the Jaffa Literary Club in 1922, the newspaper’s co-founder, poet and journalist Issa Daoud ElIssa, signalled public distrust of political leadership that came to haunt the Middle East and North Africa almost a century later. Addressing Arab rulers, El-Issa, a pioneer of criticism of 20th century Arab regimes, said: “Oh little kings of the Arabs, by the grace of God, enough feebleness and infighting. Once upon a time, our hopes were on you, but all our hopes were dashed.” El-Issa’s comments primarily targeted the inability of the Hashemites, Jordan’s current rulers who at the time ruled Hejaz — a province of contemporary Saudi Arabia, to unite the Arabs in confronting British, French and Zionist advances in the region.114 They also targeted large landlords who sold Arab land to the Jewish National Fund which was a key element of Zionist colonisation effort; Palestinian merchants opposed to general strikes in protest against pro-Jewish British policies, and against Palestinian leaders who collaborated with the mandate authorities. The comments were all the more significant given that El-Issa had joined Hashemite Prince Faisal in his 1918 march on Damascus and served as the head of his court during his brief two-year reign in Syria. Similarly, El-Issa parted ways with El-Husseini, the grand mufti, whose supporters called for a boycott of Filastin, accused El-Issa of being a traitor, burnt his house to the ground and forced him into exile in Beirut from where he continued to publish the newspaper.115 Filastin, founded in 1911 in the booming port city of Jaffa, helped in the emergence of a Palestinian civil society and built an audience across all social and economic segments. El-Issa’s cousin and cofounder, Yousef El-Issa, defined the newspaper’s mission in Filastin’s first edition as advocating
Filastin, which unlike most Palestinian publications was not formally associated with a political party, th was widely viewed as the most influential Palestinian newspaper in the first half of the 20 century.