Premier League footballers have backed a new project aimed at addressing racism in Israeli football.

Tomer Hemed and Beram Kayal, together with representatives from UEFA and the Israeli and English FAs, were at the London launch of the ‘Team of Responsibility’ project, an initiative of Kick It Out Israel and part of New Israel Fund’s ‘Let’s Kick Racism and Violence out of Israeli football’ programme.

The event consisted of two panels, discussing first how the Israelis can learn from how British football implemented methods to deal with racism in the game, before exploring how footballers can act as role models for tolerance and joint-living in Israel.

Delighted to put his name behind the launch, Hemed told Jewish News: “I’m very proud to be part of this project and it’s good to see so many people from Israel coming over here to England to be part of it. There is a problem in Israel, maybe not as bad as it looks like from the outside – but there are issues.

Brighton & Hove Albion striker Tomer Hemed. Picture: Eli Gaventa

Brighton & Hove Albion striker Tomer Hemed. Picture: Eli Gaventa

“In England, teams like Brighton make players realise how important it [the issue] is – and how we as players can influence supporters – that we can set a good example to kids as we’re role models. Players can show everyone, not just in football, how we can like and share a better life together – whatever our race.”

Saying why he’s happy to use the example of him, as an Israeli Jew – and his Brighton teammate Beram Kayal, an Israeli Arab – as to how Israelis from different backgrounds can get on, he said: “People think if you’re a Jew, a Muslim, or Christian, you can’t live together in Israel, but Beram and I have showed this isn’t the case. Journalists from around the world have come to interview us, and we’ve been happy to tell our story. We’re like brothers, our families are extremely close, our kids play together. It’s important to show this, that whatever our race or religion, we’re all humans – it’s important to show this and show that everyone can live side by side with each other.

“I think it’s good to see players used for this subject, to do something to better the situation – which I am more than happy to do. I hope this is just the start.”

Kayal was also due to be at the launch, but was unable to attend having undergone surgery for a broken leg, an injury which he picked up in the side’s pre-season match against Atletico Madrid at the weekend – and one which will rule him out of for the first 2-3 months of the season. He did though record a video message which was played at the event, where he said: “This is a very important and heart-warming event in London, the Team of Responsibility is a great and exciting project and I think it will have a great impact on Israeli football fans.

Beram Kayal addressed the audience through a video message. Picture: Eli Gaventa

Beram Kayal addressed the audience through a video message. Picture: Eli Gaventa

“I hope people can see from my great friendship with Tomer as a good example for others to see in Israel that not only Jewish and Arab, but everybody can get along and respect one other. I hope our relationship with this project is just the beginning.”

The project, which will officially launch in Israel in October, will see 11 players – representing all of Israel’s communities – promote values of social and community responsibility, working for joint-living and coexistence, with the aim to eliminate racism from the pitch.

Former Chelsea defender Paul Elliot CBE, was at the launch representing both the FA and UEFA, having spent a couple of days in Israel. There to witness the Shield of Honour awards, a project which works towards fighting racism in football, he said: “The Shield of Honour programme, is I have to say, a programme of the highest honour. What really struck me was the talk about change, and change comes from leadership. From the leadership of the President and then the joining up of thinking of the Minister of Sport, of the football clubs, of the players themselves, it was so good to see everyone working together in a collective, collaborative and cohesive way. It’s embedded in your education for the same shared reason which is using the power of football to make meaningful, sustainable, measurable change to your community and you can use it in such a wonderful way, to deal with issues of violence and racism.

Former Chelsea defender Paul Elliot CBE represented the FA and UEFA, having just pad a visit to Israel. Picture: Eli Gaventa

Former Chelsea defender Paul Elliot CBE represented the FA and UEFA, having just pad a visit to Israel. Picture: Eli Gaventa

“It was wonderful for me to spend two great days in Israel and to understand the challenges in Israel, but it’s all been solution and solution-based, I think from UEFA’s perspective and the FA’s perspective, we have to work together, using this magnificent power of football for the betterment of society – through education and football.”

Among the other panellist happy to throw their weight behind the project was Brighton owner Tony Bloom. A supporter of the organisation and the Kick It Out campaign in Israel, he told Jewish News: “I think it’s a great campaign  and that it’s brilliant they’re learning a lot from the Kick It Out campaign in the UK which has made many strides over the years.

“I’m happy to be here tonight supporting it and I though the people on the panel spoke very well and eloquently, particularly those on my panel, ex-black players who experienced it first hand – I think we’ve come a long way in the past 25 years.”

Talking about how his club deal with racism, he said:  “We have a zero-tolerance policy and I think it’s working. I think more clubs should have that, particular ones in other parts in Europe. I think in the UK our clubs are very good with zero tolerance, but as I said before in some areas, particularly when Tottenham visit West Ham or Chelsea, the amount of anti-Semitic chanting is completely unacceptable – I haven’t actually been to those games, so am hearing about it third hand but it is something the authorities should do something about it.

Brighton & Hove Albion Chairman Tony Bloom. Picture: Eli Gaventa

Brighton & Hove Albion Chairman Tony Bloom. Picture: Eli Gaventa

“As a club owner, I think it’s important that was a club, do things to stop racism of any kind, I know there’s a lot of people – people we’ve heard from today within the FA and UEFA – there’s a lot of feedback to the FA that racism in any form is unacceptable, but I think our FA have made great strides over the years.

However, the person who was arguably best placed to speak about the issue is Itzik Shanan, the Founder and Director of Kick It Out Israel, together with being a Director of Public Advocacy & Communication at New Israel Find. He told Jewish News: “Racism in Israeli football is definitely a serious problem, but the thing is the problem is declining – the phenomenon is declining year after year mainly because clubs, players and shareholders are understanding more and more that this issue should be eradicated from Israeli football and maybe the best example is with Beitar Jerusalem.”

Explaining the situation, he said: “They as a team were for many years the idols of so many Israelis – and still are. The Israeli President used to be a very outspoken fan of the club, but in the past few years, because of the bad image they have of racism, stakeholders, leaders, prime ministers and the president himself have detached themselves from the team until they saw progress. And this pressure they’re putting on the head of the club is making them do some of the right measures that at least show they’re making an effort. Not so long ago, Beitar was the team that had all the sponsors, now they are fighting to get sponsors – this is a mega change that you can see in Israel over the past few years and I have to be humbly prod of the little change our project put into it, in order to first highlight this issue and put it on the agenda and being the initiator of so many projects like the one we’re launching today. This is so fulfilling to be in this position after more than a decade to see that things are gradually improving. It is still there. We still have the problem at Beitar Jerusalem, at Maccabi Tel Aviv,  but when I started this campaign a decade ago, ‘Death to Arabs’, racist chanting was a legitimate issue in the stadium, you’re seeing less and less of it nowadays.”

Itzik Shanan, KIO Israel Founder & Director, and Director of Public Advocacy & Communications at New Israel Fund. Picture: Eli Gaventa

Itzik Shanan, KIO Israel Founder & Director, and Director of Public Advocacy & Communications at New Israel Fund. Picture: Eli Gaventa

Discussing one of the other key factors in addressing the issue in Israel, which is something his counterparts in England have used, he said: “Education is the second phase. The English FA, with a huge delegation of supporters, came to Israel and made a huge difference there. Our first endeavour was to put the spotlight on the bad behaviour, back in 2003. In 2006, with the help and leadership of John Barnes, we started the new phase of our campaign, called Kick It Out Israel – we even used the logo from KIO England – and the practice of education was very high on our agenda.

“In 2006-07, we started doing regular activity with players, on the pitch, off it, in stadiums, in homes and trying on a regular basis to educate through the media. We feel the role of the players is the most important one. This project, we’re launching in October, include a lot of star names – and it’s something to be so proud of. It’s a pioneering initiative and the fact we’re doing it with both the IFA and Israel PFA is so encouraging to me. We have so much support from prestigious international footballing bodies – I gained 10kilos today just from sheer happiness!

“Part of our success is due to the fact that the English FA, your Kick It Out have been behind us from day two – not day one, but from the advance part of our campaign. You have no idea how many people have come up to me talking about Paul Elliot’s speech. They adore in Israel has been spoken about by everyone. It gives us a lot of legitimacy in Israel, even if it doesn’t seem like it, but it is.

I can’t say we’re overcoming it, the challenge is still there and is still high and the breakthrough we did is immense, but still the road is far to go, still in some games you can hear, sometimes, a huge number of fans, are using racist chanting and this is something that needs to be eradicated and finished completely – and it’s something that we’re aiming for.”