Soccer is not only Italy's national past time, but also Israel's. The semi-final and final games of the World Cup were watched with trepidation and anxiety this past week throughout the streets of Israel's main cities. Except for the Hebrew being spoken, it would have been easy to fool oneself into thinking that you were in the Eternal City of Rome, not the Holy City of Jerusalem, as the Israelis cheered passionately for Italy.
This may be only a small surprise, given that Israelis love all things Italian. The influence of il bel paese can be felt in the cafés and restaurants throughout the country where pasta and mozzarella are found on just about every menu. As a young Israeli woman told me before Sunday's final, "I want Italy to win because they have a Mediterranean culture which is similar to our own. Italians, like Israelis, believe in the importance of family, value their mothers and love children."
Indeed, Israelis have much in common with Italians, but it is also history, both ancient and modern, that plays a role on the Israeli psyche. For example, when Italy played Germany last Tuesday in the semifinals, a young man named entered the café I was in asking about the score. Learning that it was 2-0 and gli Azzurri had prevailed, he said, "I'm so happy Italy beat Germany" as he made references to Hitler and the Nazis. Asked who he'd prefer to see win the World Cup he replied, "Italy," explaining: "Portugal threw us [Jews] out of their country centuries ago and France isn't a good place for us today. It's no wonder that Israel has seen the largest influx of European Jews coming from France these past years. In addition, the French never defend the State of Israel. Their political elites are too afraid to do or say anything that might remotely upset the Arab minorities living in France to take any balanced stance vis-à-vis our country."
Other Israelis simply came out to watch the final match simply as world class football. When France made its first and only goal of the game, a group of six French fans near me clapped, but the rest of the crowd was stupefied. Silence pervaded and dirty stares were cast upon the supporters of France. When Italy evened the score minutes later, the crowd went wild repeating "Tov" (Good). As the two teams ran up and down the field, every time the ball befell any Italian player's feet, the familiar Arabic word used frequently by Israelis "Yalla, yalla" (Go, go), was heard.
The Israelis were worried when the match went to penalty kicks, remembering Italy's loss to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup. Boisterous cheers and hand drumming on the tables filled Jerusalem with each penalty kick successfully orchestrated by gli Azzurri. After the fifth penalty kick by Fabio Grosso swished past the French goalkeeper, the Israelis started chanting, "Viva Italia! Viva Italia!" as they hit the streets dancing in joy. Cars honked their horns; large Italian flags flew from car windows and passer-bys were draped in Italy' tricolor flag. Asking one of these passer-bys why he was happy, he said, "It has nothing to do with politics. Italy, unlike France--as everyone witnessed in tonight's game--still represents something positive in Europe. That is something we can identify with."
It would be nice if more Italians, especially their current center-left government, could envision Israel's role in the Middle East in same manner.
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