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Football club shoots for tolerance in fractious Jerusalem

Jerusalem (AFP) – For one Jerusalem football club, the goal of tolerance in a city often in the grip of conflict is still worth a shot.

More than a decade after its formation, Jerusalem’s Hapoel Katamon football club is making a name for itself on the pitch but also for its approach and youth programmes to bring together Israelis and Palestinians.

It is a fan-owned league club and has pursued programmes such as tournaments for Jewish and Arab youth with the help of philanthropic organisations.

Arab and Jewish players also play for the team — unlike Jerusalem’s premier league club, Beitar Jerusalem, often in the news for the behaviour of violent anti-Arab supporters.

Katamon club was set up in 2007 by football fans who wanted to enjoy the game in a different atmosphere, said co-founder and sporting director Shai Aharon.

“What characterises us is our values ​​which are the glue of the club, for the players as much as for the supporters,” he said. 

“For us football is not just sport but a community identity.”

Aharon, a former professional player himself, said while watching players during a training session that his team strives to be “the antithesis of the daily violence of Jerusalem”.

“We advocate anti-violence, anti-racism, giving of oneself and the links between different sectors of the population,” he said.

– ‘Values of the club’ –

Katamon currently holds fourth place in the second league but is hoping for promotion.

It has high hopes for its foreign players, including a Brazilian and a Dutchman, but above all for local Aviram Baruchyan, a former captain of Beitar.

Baruchyan, 33, has 10 caps with the Israeli national side.

His Beitar past is loaded with meaning for Katamon fans who would love to see their team face the Jerusalem powerhouse on the field.

“I think the values ​​of the club can be combined with excellence on the field and within two to three years we will be a club to be taken into account,” said Aharon.

Jerusalem is ethnically, religiously and culturally divided between the mainly Palestinian eastern sector and the Jewish west.

Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it.

Both sides see the city as their capital and international consensus has been that its status must be negotiated between the two sides.

US President Donald Trump recently broke with that consensus by proclaiming the city Israel’s capital.

Israelis have been targeted by Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks while Palestinians face the gradual expansion of Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem as well as in the occupied West Bank.

The decades-long conflict has left many feeling little hope remains for a resolution, but Katamon aims to defy such fears.

Funded by donations, the club organises monthly neighbourhood football tournaments for children and teenagers.

The 10-minute games are played by pupils from 52 Jewish and Arab schools in Jerusalem and its surroundings.

“We want to give opportunities to young people from Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods to get to know each other so that everyone accepts each other without distinction of faith, gender or religious practice,” said Dafna Goldschmidt-Cohen, spokeswoman for the club.

“Whatever the neighbourhood, Jews against Arabs are rivals, but only on the field.”

– ‘Feel at home’ –

In the March tournament for girls, Henrietta Szold, a Jewish elementary school in west Jerusalem, beat the girls from Ein Nakuba, an Arab village near the city.

Two coaches supervise the competition, one Jewish and the other Arab. 

“The goal of this tournament is to give the children of Jerusalem the desire to live as good neighbours,” said Mohammed Basha, one of the coaches.

A physical education teacher by profession, he also runs mixed Hebrew and Arabic workshops where each group can become familiar with the other’s language.

“There are often tensions in Jerusalem and it is not always easy to continue our activities, but we have never cancelled a training session or a meeting over the six years that this tournament has existed,” he said.

“With us, the nationality, ethnicity or religion of the players plays no role,” said Aharon, in contrast to Beitar’s refusal to hire Arab players.

Beitar, whose fans have been known to chant “Death to Arabs” at matches, has of late been struggling to change its racist image.

Last year, it was awarded an anti-racism prize by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for its youth work and establishment of a forum to deal with incitement and racism.

Mahmoud Awiset, a 19-year-old Palestinian from east Jerusalem, said he was happy to sign with Katamon.

“In the beginning, my neighbours didn’t understand, but in the end everything is going well because Hapoel Katamon is a different kind of club,” he said.

“Today, I feel at home when I’m in Katamon, far from the city’s tensions.”

For spokeswoman Goldschmidt-Cohen: “Football is a rallying tool, not a goal in itself.

“Sports results are important but what comes first for us is to build a different future for Jerusalem.”

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