Israelis, Palestinians huddle, as football finds fans in the Holy Land
How do you say ‘hut’ in Hebrew?
On a warm November Thanksgiving night in Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium, the Judean Rebels are demolishing the Herzliya Hammers in a rowdy American-style football game in Israel.
The IFL, or Israel Football League, is in its fourth season and gaining popularity, with eight teams from across the country.
The two teams couldn’t have been more contrasting. The veteran Rebels, in their professional orange jerseys, was made up of a gumbo of characters, including Jewish settlers, American-born seminary students, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians. The Hammers, a new expansion team donning white shirts with hand-drawn numbers, were mainly native-born, many veterans of elite Israeli army combat units.
It was quickly becoming a massacre as the Rebels were shutting down the Hammers, who had ventured up to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzilya on the Mediterranean coast.
There’s a reason the padding is so heavy in this contact sport. Bones can be and are broken. On the first play of the game, a player from the Herzliya Hammers suffered a fracture and had to be taken out by an ambulance crew.
“I love this game, because we get to hit people,” says Shlomo Schachter, a heavy offensive lineman on the Judean Rebels.
“We don’t get hurt,” chimes in his teammate Musa Elyyan. “We hurt the other people.”
Tonight’s game leader, the Judean Rebels, are staging a revolution of sorts. Nowhere is the cliché that sports brings people together more apparent than in this team, which has Jewish settlers playing side by side with West Bank Palestinians.
Schachter, his long and sweaty side curls framing the sides of his face, is pumped up. His team is having a great night against the hapless Hammers as they rock up touchdown after touchdown. He played college football in the states and dreamt about playing in the Holy Land.
“One of the ways we are a rebellion is that we’re trying to create a new path in the world and create a coexistence between Palestinians and settlers together in the West Bank, that we have people together to play football,” Schachter tells The Media Line.
Musa Elayyan lives in the Palestinian village of Beit Hanina north of Jerusalem. He grew up in the U.S. and moved here with his three brothers a few years ago. Hooked on football, they began searching out the sport. One team – the Jerusalem Lions – were hesitant about letting them join, fearing it would bring tensions. But Schachter’s team scooped them up, putting aside the fact that the Rebels were mostly pious residents of Jewish settlements.
“We are as [Schachter] says a revolution. This is a rebellion. We are the first team of Israelis and Palestinians who get along and work as a team unit. We can create a model on the field and we can create one off the field,” Elayyan says.
Elayyan, a clean-cut and strapping young man, says no one hassles him or his brothers about playing on a team with settlers.
One could say that this game is about coexistence, about bringing Jews and Arabs together, about bringing religious and secular together, but really it seems to be about killing the man with the ball.
“Israelis find American-style football so interesting both because it is physical and because it is strategic. There are all sorts of strategic moves. We especially have a lot of combat soldiers playing, also Israeli Arabs. We have foreign workers, and also Russian immigrants, an a whole core of Americans including some who played organized football back in the U.S.,” says Steve Leibowitz, the president of American Football in Israel, which runs IFL.
The small stadium is filled with spectators, who pay about the price of a movie to get in.
Hotdogs and beer give the event add to the American atmosphere. The IFL plays on a 60-yard field instead of the standard 100-yard ones in the states. The Kraft stadium and its Astroturf in Jerusalem were sponsored by Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots.
“[Football] isn’t a Jewish sport, although there have been great Jewish players. Bob Kraft once said to me that when you reach your bar mitzvah age, that is when you realize you have more of a chance of owning a football team than playing on one in the NFL,” Leibowitz told The Media Line.
The sport is growing in popularity in Israel and is soon to expand to high schools.
“We have five high schools who will be taking part in our first-ever season in our Kraft IFL high school league, which will be kicking off in January,” says Uriel Sturm, IFL commissioner. “This is the future of the sport. It’s not about bringing professional football here. It’s about bringing football to Israeli youth and Israeli players.”
Sturm adds that he believes American-style football would be great preparation for high schoolers for their military service.
The IFL teams come from as far north as Haifa and south as Beersheba. It draws natives of Russia and Ukraine as much as from the U.S. and Canada. One of the quarterbacks is the son of the current chief of the Israel Defense Forces. The average age is about mid 20s, but some are older.
“I never even saw this game on TV before, but it seemed to me to be a lot of fun and it’s a blast,” says Guy of the Haifa Underdogs. “I’m the oldest. I’m 43, and I’m the rookie. I’m the water boy.”
“Big Mike” Gondelman is a drug addiction counselor in his day job, and veteran college player and now plays for the Jerusalem’s Kings.
“I’m the biggest guy in the league, 6’ 9” 400 plus,” says the large ultra-Orthodox man.
We have guys who are yeshiva students. We have guys who are in college. All sorts.
We range all over you know. It’s really beautiful. Everyone sort of just blends together and we make a great team,” Gondelman says before rushing off to change into his football gear.
As time ran out, the Judean Rebels shut out the Hammers 44 to zero.
“I think people love us because we are a beacon of light in dark times. When people look at the news they aren’t used to seeing Palestinians and Israelis are getting along, having fun together. You know, the last thing you expect to see when you turn on the news is the two of us, you know, sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner together. And that’s exactly what is happening tonight,” he says.
Lebowitz says he hopes to see competition with regional football leagues from as near as Turkey. But for the time being, just getting Israelis hooked on the sport is something to cheer about.
“I think there’s a great potential, not only for people to play the game, but also for spectators to come out and watch,” he says.
And in Hebrew, the word for ‘hut’ which snaps the ball into play is ‘Achad.’