Lofty Goals

Lofty Goals

Netty C. Gross

Lofty Goals An Arab lottery winner sees a Jewish soccer club as a key to pluralism and peace Netty C. Gross If all goes according to plan, Jawdat Ibrahim will soon have the distinction of being the first Israeli Arab owner of a Jewish sports team. In mid-August, Ibrahim – a 39-year-old millionaire restaurateur from the village of Abu Ghosh, a 10-minute drive outside Jerusalem and home to some 5,000 Arabs and 40 Jewish families – created a stir when he announced that he was negotiating to buy the once-venerable Hapoel Jerusalem soccer club. Established in 1935 by the Jerusalem branch of the Histadrut Labor Federation, Hapoel saw its glory days in the 50s, 60s and 70s. In those years, when sports teams were extensions of political parties and fans divided fanatically along ideological lines, Hapoel routinely trounced the right-wing Beitar, winning the National Cup in 1973. But then the tables turned. Poor Sephardim saw Hapoel (“the Worker”) as the club of the loathed ruling Ashkenazi elite and rallied around Beitar. “The irony is that today Beitar is the club of the Likud fat cats while Hapoel pays meager salaries,” says Haim Baram, political and sports columnist and Hapoel maven. Hapoel hasn’t won a match against its local rival since 1992 and has slipped from the Premier League to the second-ranked National League. Ibrahim, who leaped to fame when he won a $23 million jackpot in the Illinois State lottery in 1990, declines to discuss details of the “very serious” negotiations with the current owners, building contractors Victor Yonah and Yossi Sassi, except to say “they are very hard going.” But the very talk of the deal marks a sociological “moment” in Israeli soccer, a sport whose matches have been marred by Jewish-Arab strife. Especially amid intifada hostilities, games have seen Jewish fans shouting epithets like “death to the Arabs” and “go home to Palestine” at Arab players. There has been rock and bottle throwing. Beitar, almost uniquely among leading Israeli clubs, has never in its 60-year history had an Arab player, and has been known more than any other national-profile team for rowdy, sometimes racist, fans, says Baram. It’s for these very reasons that Ibrahim – sitting in his airy 300-seat restaurant, clad in designer pale blue shirt, black hair neatly combed back, just beneath a mounted letter and photograph from the late Jordanian King Hussein – says he wants to buy Hapoel. Despite its troubles, he says, the club still matters – finishing last season mid-table in the National League, and with game attendance averaging about 2,000, including many Jerusalem Arabs, Ibrahim among them. (Beitar, which has a nationwide following, draws about 15,000 to its home games.) He’s not in it for the money – “there’s none to be made” – but rather, he says, for the symbolism in having a wealthy Israeli Arab purchase, and hopefully transform, a struggling Jewish soccer club. Significantly, he has said he has no interest in owning the successful, mainly Arab side Bnei Sakhnin, which plays in the Premier League and won last year’s State Cup. “Jews,” says Ibrahim in fairly fluent shmoozy English, “have to see Israeli Arabs not as second-class citizens but as competent members of society. And we Israeli Arabs have to start taking charge of our destiny because this is our country too. We are 20 percent of the population but our presence is not felt constructively and our politicians are unfortunately only involved in the Palestinian question. We must model ourselves on the Jews in the U.S. and become an influential minority.” Should the acquisition go through, Ibrahim vows that “professionals will be hired to manage the club and get it back to the top level.” But there are far loftier goals. Ibrahim envisions the team, with its Jewish and Arab players, competing in matches in Arab countries and generally acting as a bridgehead for peace. “That would be my answer to those Beitar fans who scream death to the Arabs.” Asked what sort of reception his venture has received from fellow Israeli Arabs, Ibrahim says there’s been mostly silence. “People are afraid to encourage me but also afraid of criticizing me because I am too important in my community,” he says. Ibrahim, however, is not afraid to speak his mind. He says he has no tolerance for those who gave the green light to Palestinian terrorism: “Nothing justifies the incredible loss of life,” he says. “Nothing was gained and so many innocent people were lost.” To Israeli Jews, he says, “Understand that we [Israeli Arabs] are connected to the Palestinians, we are their brothers and cousins. But we can be your bridge to them. Make peace with us first so we can help you make peace with them.” Ibrahim’s generally conciliatory tone may be traced to his roots in Abu Ghosh, a village that did not join the fighting against the nascent state. For some Israeli Arabs, Abu Ghosh carries the scent of collaboration; for Jews, its residents are regarded as “good Arabs” – the sort to whom chief rabbis can turn when seeking a non-Jewish trustee to symbolically purchase the nation’s hametz on the eve of Passover. Ibrahim dismisses the collaborator claim: “We’re pragmatists. Some people want to fight forever. We don’t.” Baram, 63, a passionate, chain smoking leftist who says he’s not a Zionist, shares some Israeli Arab reservations about Ibrahim’s Abu Ghosh pedigree, and also wonders whether, despite that lottery win, Ibrahim’s pockets are deep enough to finance a pro-soccer team (which insiders says costs at least $1 million annually to run). Still, Baram says it would be “fitting for Hapoel to have an Israeli Arab owner. It has a tradition of Arab players,” says Baram, who saw his first Hapoel game in 1947, aged four. “Even before the state there was ‘George,’ an Arab who played in the right-back position. Afterward, we had the great Ali Othman from Beit Safafa.” Before 1990, Jawdat Ibrahim was about the last person in Abu Ghosh one might have imagined speaking authoritatively about peace and economics – or owning the largest restaurant in town, its walls decorated with letters from royalty and politicians. “I was just a poor local kid – really poor,” he says with a small smile. His dramatic rags-to-riches story, though over a decade old, is still incredible. One of six children, Ibrahim was 4 when his father, for reasons which remain unclear, committed suicide by swallowing poison. Though he declines to talk about it, by one account, Ibrahim was sitting beside his father as the deed was done. He was raised by his mother in a basement with no paved floor or refrigerator. The family survived on payments from the National Insurance Institute. “Quite frankly, if we lived in a country which did not have these benefits, she would be dead.” Still, he says, his mother raised him and his siblings with a “spirit of optimism. We carried on; went to school; grew up to respect our fellow man, Jews and Arabs alike. I never felt defeated by our poverty.” The boy worked his way through high school doing gardening for Jews. In his early 20s, he leased a small ceramic factory in Rehavia, near the prime minister’s official residence, from its aging Jewish owner; the factory specialized in creating small decorative items. But not being a businessman, Ibrahim found himself drowning in $150,000 worth of debt within two years. “I got orders but my kiln didn’t work right and I had a lot of breakage.” When his creditors threatened to sue him, he panicked. “I had two choices: go to jail, because I didn’t have money for lawyers, or try my luck in the U.S.” where he had an uncle and an older brother. But he was so clueless that on his visa application, instead of describing his profession as “distributor of ceramics,” he wrote, “agent of Israel.” He meant sales agent, but a mildly alarmed U.S. consular official questioned whether he “worked for the Mossad.” Purchasing the airline ticket proved a hurdle too. “I only had about $30 and the ticket cost $700.” A sympathetic Jewish travel agent lent Ibrahim the funds, even extending him an extra $100 pocket money. “I promised I’d pay her back after I’d make some money in America.” Ibrahim landed in Chicago on a freezing December day. His uncle and brother came to fetch him. He found work washing cars and bailing out snowbound vehicles. As the months ticked by, he became “disappointed and frustrated. I kept calling my mother, telling her I wanted to come home.” And then one day Ibrahim, feeling “especially low,” went to a small grocery store that also sold lottery tickets. “I had $20, really my last few dollars, for food. But the line for food was long so I bought a ticket instead – the first time. Then I went home. My uncle came by and asked if I wanted to join him for dinner. I said I’d just spent my last 20 bucks on a lottery ticket. He said the meal was his treat. Then he asked me, ‘What will you give me if you win?’ I said $100. We had a good laugh.” Two days later, Ibrahim called the 1-800 line and discovered he had the winning numbers. His share in the jackpot was $17.5 million (there were three other winners) but due to a technical issue, which he says is too complicated to explain, Ibrahim was forced to sue for the prize, as a consequence of which his take rose to $22.7 million. The money is taxed by American authorities and paid out over 20 years. What went through his mind when he discovered that he had won? “I thought I was dreaming. I called my mother. She couldn’t understand the size of the prize. She thought I won 50,000 shekels; that represented the greatest sum imaginable.” Ibrahim, who doesn’t smoke, drink or gamble, admits “I went a little crazy at first” – buying clothes and shipping a Cadillac and Lincoln Town car back to Abu Ghosh. But then “I realized that what had happened was destiny.” He is a non-practicing Muslim – “I don’t even fast on Ramadan” – but nevertheless saw the win as “an act of God,” and knew that “I had to behave responsibly. I repaid all my debts,” of course, including to the kindly travel agent. And he engaged money managers and lawyers to invest the fortune. In 1991, still living abroad, Ibrahim opened his restaurant in Abu Ghosh, a large, elegant eatery on the main drag, which triggered the opening of a string of similar places offering traditionally prepared Arab dishes. Secular Israeli Jews jam the village on Saturday; business has fallen off during the past four years although, Ibrahim says, customers are steadily coming back. “The restaurants have helped the local economy and created a kind of peace industry.” (He has another restaurant, Abu Ghosh, in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Zedek.) After a failed marriage to an American woman, Ibrahim “decided to go home, back to Abu Ghosh.” Returning in 1993, he started buying land in the village, building luxury townhouses and developing other properties. He also established the Abu Ghosh Foundation, which gives out scholarships to needy children and cash grants “to the really poor. Like we were.” Ibrahim criticizes other wealthy Israeli Arabs for not being sufficiently charitable, “even though the Muslim faith encourages it.” He also carved a new role for himself; peacenik, macher and favor-getter for fellow Israeli Arabs. He forged alliances with American and Israeli politicians like Shimon Peres and former ambassador Martin Indyk and hosted at his restaurant numerous peace meetings between Palestinian, Israeli Arab and Jewish leaders. With Jordan’s Hussein there was a tight bond, which Ibrahim notes has not extended to the current king, Abdullah. “Hussein,” he says with a nostalgic smile, “always called me on my cell phone for my birthday.” An arranged marriage to a young village woman also failed, and despite the dazzle of his existence, he felt lonely. Two years ago, on a trip to Thailand, he stopped in a department store to buy a nephew a gift and was told the cashier could only accept local currency. Looking for a place to change dollars into Thai batt, he stopped a young Thai woman for help and she volunteered to do the trade herself. “I liked her immediately and asked her out for dinner. She said she’d only come with a chaperone.” Ibrahim says the relationship blossomed, although he never told the woman, a former beauty queen, that he was a millionaire. “I said I lived in a village in Israel, in a building with a lot of family members. She said fine. When she came here,” he chuckles, “she found out the rest.” A month after their meeting, the couple married in Thailand. They now have an eight month old son, Jassem. Ibrahim reports that his wife, 28, who has taken the Muslim name Noor (like Hussein’s fourth queen), is happy, learning Hebrew and Arabic and working out at a gym in nearby Mevasseret Zion – although getting her citizenship is proving difficult, as is often the case with foreign spouses of Israeli Arabs. The success of his Abu Ghosh restaurant, and the others in the village, in bringing Jews and Arabs together for however limited an encounter, has persuaded Ibrahim of the viability of coexistence. “For more than three years all trust between Jews and Arabs has been shattered. And yet every weekend 1,000 people, mostly Israeli Jews, come to Abu Ghosh, an Arab village, to dine at my restaurant.” (During the 2002 World Cup, Jews and Arabs watched matches together on a huge screen he set up.) “They trust us and feel protected here. I want to expand on that – by using ordinary means which give people pleasure. Like sharing food – or playing soccer. “Peace is possible between us. But we each have to do our bit to change the reality. The lottery came out of the blue and changed my life. But it was so random. Why did I win it? I try not to be too philosophical but I feel compelled to act, to make things better. This is my mission.”

Copyright c 2004. The Jerusalem Report

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