Playing for the same Premier League football team, representing Israel together, childhood friends, neighbours – even the same birthday – not much separates Tomer Hemed and Beram Kayal. In fact the only discernible difference is one’s a Jew and the other an Arab Muslim. Yet even that distinction only serves to bring them closer together.
Sitting down to speak to them at Brighton & Hove Albion’s training ground, the chemistry and connection between the two is apparent from the start. Successful footballers in their own right – the pair played a pivotal role in securing Brighton promotion from the Championship last season – it’s the message the duo are conveying off the pitch, how people from two different religious backgrounds enjoy sharing their lives, which is arguably just as priceless as scoring any last-minute winner.
“Talking about it now, I don’t think for one second that when we were kids, I considered us being from different backgrounds, a different religion and race,” says Hemed.
“As kids, we never had a reason not to share our life together or to not feel comfortable with someone else because of his religion.”
A nice sentiment to feel, but one that isn’t shared universally – which is why the pair are also happy to use their privileged position as professional footballers to show how people from different backgrounds can take part in each other’s lives, live out their dreams together and, more importantly, live side-by-side in harmony with each other.
To explain and understand how – and more importantly – why these two get on so well, why they respect each other so much, you have to start at the beginning.
They met as children when they joined Maccabi Haifa, and it was at the club’s academy where they were shown how people of all creeds and races could get on together.
“We had players from lots of backgrounds; Jewish, Christians, Muslims – it didn’t matter who you were, your colour or your religion, we felt like a family,” Kayal explains.
“The relationship between Tomer and I has always been one of friendship, and now we’re like one family. When we first played in the same team, I was playing just behind him and it made the connection between us even stronger – both on and off the pitch.
“When we play in the national team, we still have this memory of us growing up and we never thought because he’s Jewish, or he’s Arab, that that would affect our relationship.”
Hemed experienced the same sense of togetherness when he left Haifa to play for Maccabi Ahi Nazareth, a team that plays in what is known as ‘the Arab capital of the world’.
“It was an Arab team and Jewish players are welcomed there,” he says.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like you can’t live in Israel or it’s a difficult situation, but if you live there, you see, especially in football, how everyone can share their lives, be friends, joke and laugh about everything.
“Football is a good example about life. Even at the biggest clubs, you can see how players from other religions can get on together. People from other religions play and share their life through football.”
It’s that message the two are happy to share with the world, and while some people don’t like to be looked upon as role models, these two thrive on it.
“We’re proud of what we are,” says Kayal. “We enjoyed growing up together, where we came from, and we’re enjoying sharing our life together and showing people there are no problems.
“We try to give that good message to other people, that Muslim, Jewish, Christian, black and white [people] can live together and enjoy their life.
“I remember one time, Tomer and I were sharing a room, I was praying on one side, him on the other, I wanted to take a picture and he was laughing. These things happen between us. Obviously I respect his religion, he respects mine, but the main
thing at the end of the day is how we’re going to show our message that we can live together.
“We’ve been living together in Brighton for three years, his family, my family, we feel like we’re one proper family, whatever small detail happens in my house, or his house, we’ll know about it.”
Relaxed and at ease talking about their relationship, the pair are just as happy to
take part in projects and initiatives – such as Kick It Out Israel’s launch in London last summer of The Team for Social Responsibility initiative, which promotes joint living between Jews, Arabs and all of Israel’s communities – and share their experiences with the world.
“When something happens, or an event is organised, we go,” Hemed says. “We like to do anything we can. Many countries send journalists to speak to us for us to share our story. It’s good we can do this and show everyone, not just in Israel, our story.”
Kayal adds: “If you’re looking for a good example, look at Tomer and me. We grew up together, played together, tried to achieve our career dreams and we’re best friends here at Brighton. We try to show everyone what
good friends we are, how the best solution between Arab and Jew can be together here