Two sides of Israel and racism

February 1, 2013 - 9:51 AM by

Tom Franz and  Salma Fiyumi react as the winner of MasterChef is announced. (Courtesy Keshet)

Tom Franz and Salma Fiyumi react as the winner of MasterChef is announced. (Courtesy Keshet)

You can make pretty strong cases that Israeli society is either inherently racist or the most flourishing, open society in the world.
Proponents of both view had plenty of ammunition this week to state their cases – the Betar Jerusalem saga and the MasterChef reality TV competition. Let’s start with Betar, the country’s flagship soccer team.

Last weekend, the team made headlines after fans protested the team’s decision to sign two Muslim Chechen players by hanging a banner reading “Betar forever pure” and shouting anti-Muslim chants during a game.

The outburst, which led to three arrests, was condemned by politicians and pundits across the spectrum. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, a longtime Betar fan, announced that he would no longer be attending the team’s games. “For more than 40 years I’ve been following this team with love and excitement,” Olmert wrote in an op-ed for the Hebrew news site Ynet. “[But] I’m sick of being identified with the ignorant vulgarity of people who aren’t and will never be what Betar should symbolize in Israeli society and sports.”

But, with Betar’s policy of never having signed an Arab or Muslim player before, and the team’s staunch nationalistic identity, the fans’ reaction was not surprising. And unfortunately, it’s indicative of a not-small percentage of the population’s mindset. The team’s management, fearing that those widespread racist attitudes would spread out during the week, held their Jerusalem game against the Arab team from Uum El Fahm without any audience in the stands. A sorry state of affairs.

That’s why the finals in the MasterChef reality show on Channel 2 were so uplifting. Based on the American series, the Israeli version was a huge hit in its third season. The finale this week pitted Tom Franz, a 34-year-old attorney and religiously observant German convert from Tel Aviv against Salma Fiyumi, an Arab nurse and Alzheimer’s researcher from Kafr Kassem, and Jackie Azoulay, a 29-year-old housewife from Elad.

The camaraderie, good will and cultural tolerance that was on display went a long way in washing away the bad taste of the Betar affair. Seeing Fiyumi, a religiously observant Muslim, and Franz display their unique brands of Israeli-ness alongside the familiar Elad was truly inspiring. As was the food – all three contestants prepared main dishes using kadaif — an Arab pastry of fine, thin noodles — to enclose and cover either mushroom, chicken or chicken liver sautés.

With Franz and Fiyumi left in the finals, it was clear that no matter who won, it would be a victory for Israeli diversity and multiculturalism.

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