By Gerard Boyce
Israel’s assault on Jenin refugee camp earlier this month (July 2023) resulted in the deaths of several young Palestinians and drew sharp international criticism and condemnation, often from unexpected quarters. It also appears to have tested ties in countries where it has traditionally enjoyed strong levels of official and popular support.
For instance, following this attack, tough questions were put to former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet by anchor Anjana Gadgil in an interview aired on the BBC, a network frequently accused of harbouring a pro-Israeli bias. Predictably, the tough line of questioning she took elicited an outcry from defenders of Israel who protested that this was an ‘attack’ on Israel and variously described it as an act of betrayal of that country. Subsequently, the BBC was pressured into issuing an apology for the line taken by this reporter (Sales, 2023).
In contrast, Israeli defenders have wholeheartedly endorsed the introduction of the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill in the UK’s House of Commons (Harpin, 2023), despite objections from both left and right of the political spectrum in that country that, if passed, it would ‘infringe free speech in the UK’ and ‘curtail democracy’ there (Wells and Seddon, 2023). Meanwhile across the pond, they enthusiastically applauded remarks made by would-be Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis during a speech he delivered at a recent conference in Arlington hosted by pro-Israel group Christians United for Israel (Al Jazeera Staff Reporter, 2023).
Their reaction suggests that the only response to Israeli aggression which those who claim to be defending Israel deem acceptable is rabid and blanket approval of all Israeli actions. According to the narrow view to which they subscribe, only those who are prepared to defend every action of the Israeli government without question, no matter the harm it causes or the destruction it wreaks, can be classified as a true supporter of Israel. Anything less than absolute agreement with the Israeli government’s actions is akin to a betrayal that, at worst, could possibly be motivated by latent anti-Semitism.
This stark dichotomy which embraces those who religiously support the current Israeli government’s policies and actions as true friends of Israel and smears anybody who disagrees with the Israeli government’s conduct as an enemy of the Israeli state is not only misleading but unfair as it lumps genuine supporters of Israel who might oppose certain of its actions with foes who genuinely detest Israel. Arguably, this simplistic view poses a danger to Israel as it risks pushing critics who care deeply about that country away and denies it the opportunity to engage with them in order to understand the source of their criticism.
To get an inkling of the foolhardiness of adopting this stance and the great risk it poses to Israel, one need only recall the damage Real Madrid Football Club, widely believed to be the greatest football (or soccer in the US) club in history and crowned as the Club of the Century by football governing body FIFA in 2000, inflicted on itself during the first Galactico Era which roughly began in 2000 with the ascension of Florentino Perez to the position of Club President and ended with his departure in 2006. During this period, Real Madrid set about recruiting the best players in the world no matter the cost of doing so. Marked by an exorbitant outlay of financial expenditure, even by current standards when spending on signing football stars has reached dizzying levels, the logic of doing so appears to have been that, by outlaying vast sums on marquee players for each position, success would inevitably follow.
Not everyone, however, bought into this vision for the club and supported the pursuit of a financially reckless strategy born of hubris and the unfettered ambition of Club President Perez. An important constituency which, by and large, was sceptical of the belief that recruiting the best and most expensive players would make for the best team, if not downright opposed to this policy, was diehard Real Madrid supporters. Members of this group tended instead to favour the nurturing and development of home-grown talent produced by the club’s acclaimed training academy from which crowd-favourites like Raúl, Guti and Spanish World Cup winning captain Iker Casillas had graduated.
On the other hand, casual fans salivated at the real-life fantasy football experiment embarked upon by the club and were in awe of the glamour teams assembled under this policy. In the short term, it appeared as if this policy direction would reap its desired dividends, judging by the additional T-shirt sales and boost in popularity generated by bringing in big names like David Beckham, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. In hindsight, however, true fans’ skepticism seems to have been validated if success is measured by what matters viz. the silverware amassed by the team assembled during the first Galactico Era.
Incidentally, this period coincided with the beginning of one of arch-rivals Barcelona FC’s greatest period of success, a time when they long held the upper hand over bitter rivals Real Madrid. It is somewhat ironic that their dominance was based on a talented squad built around bright young players like Iniesta, Messi and Xavi who had come into the first team after being brought through the ranks of Barca’s very own La Masia Training Academy.
Needless to add but Barca’s supremacy in La Liga isolated many casual Real Madrid fans and caused the club to lose much of their support. Hardcore Real Madrid fans, however, those who were castigated for opposing the Galactico policy and expressing deep reservations about the ruinous effects this policy would have on the club’s performance and its balance sheet, remained true to the team throughout this tumultuous period when the success to which the club had grown accustomed proved elusive. The devotion they exhibited during this fallow period serves as a clear indictment of the notion that criticism is tantamount to disloyalty and is, therefore, not befitting of the true supporter. Indeed, rather than an act of betrayal, their honest criticism even at the risk of ridicule may in fact have been the greatest expression of commitment to the survival and future success of the club.
Israeli leaders and politicians would do well to bear this sentiment in mind when confronting domestic protesters or addressing criticism levelled from allies abroad and to heed the dangers of conflating criticism with bias or perceiving condemnation of certain actions it has taken as treachery or anti-Semitism. As the folly of Real Madrid’s pursuit of its Galactico policy shows, the consequence of mistaking wanton adulation for genuine support is that the loyalty of the true fan is swapped for the fickle praise of the casual supporter, the fan who is likely to abandon the home team as soon as the next glamour side is pulled together. Should Israel carry on like this, it risks conceding an own goal which, though it might not threaten its seemingly unassailable lead in this match, will undoubtedly jeopardise its chances of winning the league.
About the author: Gerard Boyce is an Economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College). An ardent football watcher, he declares allegiance to neither Real Madrid nor bitter rivals Barcelona FC and writes in his personal capacity.
Al Jazeera Staff Reporter. 2023. West Bank not occupied territory, says DeSantis. Al Jazeera, 17 July 2023.
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Web address: CFI praises government’s ‘ground-breaking’ anti-BDS bill | Jewish News (Date accessed: 20 July 2023)