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.

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