No, the Brits don’t hate Israel
The Israel-Russia match showed just how shallow anti-Israel feeling is in this country
WE ENGLISH Jews often speak of — and are sometimes accused of — divided loyalties. Who would we support, we’re asked, in a clash of England against Israel? Twice this year the question became real, in football terms at least, when the two national sides played against each other for a place in next year’s European championships. One newspaper even ran a feature on the dilemma for Jewish England fans, under the memorable headline: Lion or Zion?
But for 95 glorious minutes last Saturday night, such angst was a distant memory. Suddenly you could cheer for Israel till you were hoarse, without embarrassment — because that’s what every England fan in the country was doing. If England were to have a chance of qualifying, Israel had to thwart Russia.
As you will know by now, Israel did rather better than that, beating the Russians with a thrilling injury-time winner. At that instant, more Englishmen and -women were on their feet cheering for plucky little Israel than at any time in the nation’s history. Sure, Israel’s military success in June 1967 had its British admirers, but I doubt any of them showed the enthusiasm on display last week.
When Elyaniv Barda scored after just 10 minutes for Israel, the Sky commentator erupted, declaring it “the perfect start for England”. Instantly, the interests of Israel and England had become merged, utterly inseparable. Later, the coverage cut away to shots of England fans watching the match in a pub: they were dressed in novelty black hats with fake peyot, the beer-swilling, tattooed Ing-er-Land boys transformed into Woody Allenstyle Chassidim. Not exactly the Israeli national look, but a nice thought.
The build-up had been warm, too. England boss Steve McClaren, whose job depended on Israeli success, warned the Russians that Israel was “a proud nation” who would not be defeated easily. My own paper, The Guardian, would have surprised those who regard it as unfriendly: on match day it ran a “how to” guide, with tips for readers “to support Israel”. Among the suggestions: eat falafel, “wash down with a Maccabee beer and then round things off with a Noblesse, the classic Israeli cigarette”.
But it was the post-match reaction that British Jews would have savoured. “We’re on oy vey,” gushed the News of the World, straining its computerised pun software to breaking point. On the back page, a tribute to the first goalscorer — “Elylujah” — was even more contrived. On Monday, The Guardian ran a large photo of Omer Golan, who had scored the winning goal, under the headline: “After Beckham, meet the new England hero.”
The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, caught the mood visiting Israel at the weekend. “Every Englishman is a friend of Israel today,” he beamed, hastily re-phrasing, lest anyone take offence, “an even greater friend of Israel.” Ninety years to the month after the Balfour Declaration, the two nations were once again the best of pals.
Of course, being Israel, there were complications. Some commentators noted that the Ramat Gan crowd contained more Russia supporters than Israel ones: that’s a revealing insight into the many Russians who have emigrated to Israel with only a modest allegiance to the country. They wanted to cheer for their old country, not their new one.
Similarly, some had wondered whether Israel would be truly motivated to take on Russia — and not only because they had no hope of qualification themselves. Israel’s manager, Dror Kashtan, had used his pre-match press conference not to psyche out his direct opponent, Russia’s Dutch-born coach, Guus Hiddink, but to pay tribute to him. He noted that Hiddink’s father, Gerrit, had had responsibility for the distribution of food vouchers in his rural village of Varsseveld during the Nazi occupation — and that he had faked break-ins at the food depot so that he could smuggle vouchers to Jews hiding in farm buildings nearby. Kashtan said that Israel owed Hiddink Sr a great debt of gratitude.
In the end, it all worked out perfectly. And what a pleasure it was to switch on the radio phone-ins or read the morning papers and face only lavish praise for Israel. It prompted a happy thought, too, one far away from the football field.
We often whip ourselves into quite a lather, fretting about growing antiZionism and even antisemitism. I don’t want to belittle the genuine instances of that, but last weekend suggests antiIsrael sentiment in Britain might not be nearly as deep or as widespread as we fear. If a single game of football is all it takes to have the beer boys wearing peyot and the Guardian running its “how to support Israel” guide, then maybe things aren’t quite as dreadful as some of us imagine.