Jews-only soccer? How absurd

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

I confess I am not the keenest reader of the JC?s back pages. Even so, I?ve looked at them often enough to know that while those reared on Jackie Mason gags may consider Jewish sport an oxymoron, out there on the playing fields of Hendon and Finchley, in the world of the amateur Jewish football leagues, it is anything but. These people take their sport very seriously.

Their Jewishness too, by the sound of things. I?m talking about a row that has broken out inside the Maccabi Southern Football League (MSFL), one that should reverberate far beyond the locker rooms of Anglo-Jewish soccer. It is an argument that goes right to the heart of one of our community?s most vexed questions.

At issue is a team that until last month played in the MSFL?s fourth division. Called the Veras, they are a collection of men in their mid-thirties (though sweetly they still refer to themselves as boys) who enjoy huffing and puffing their way around a football pitch on a Sunday morning. After a recent game, their opponents challenged them: was it true that some of the Veras? 11 men were not, in fact, Jewish? The Veras fessed up: they had indeed fielded non-Jews, lads who had long pretended to be of the faith, even signing official forms declaring their eligibility to play in the MSFL under false names. One non-Jewish man became ?Mike Diamond? every time he put on his boots.

The league promptly charged the Veras with ?objectionable conduct?. The team rejected that charge, refused to ditch their non-Jewish players and last month quit the MSFL.

Now the easy response is to say, how would this look if it were the other way around, if an amateur football team were punished for fielding Jewish players? We?d be up in arms!

That, though, is a weak argument. We have long accepted that black groups should be able to organise without facing accusations of anti-white racism, just as feminists have every right to hold meetings closed to men. There is no reason why Jews cannot have a football league of their own. To their credit, the Veras accept that, stressing their support for ?a sporting environment in which players can celebrate their Jewish identity and not hide it?.

Still, there is a world of difference between establishing a Jewish comfort zone and submitting players in a Sunday-morning kickabout to an ethnic test. Apparently, the Veras were far from the first team to face this kind of scrutiny: often sides are asked to vouch for the ethnicity of their players.

You only have to think about this for a moment to realise its absurdity. Is the MSFL seriously going to ask to see a man?s parents? ketubah before he can keep goal in an amateur football match? Or is it not his bloodline they want to test, but his faith? Will they ask a would-be striker his view of the divine origin of the Torah?

Normally the defence for such exercises in Jewish-only policing ? like the stringent steps to keep out young Guy Sagal from JFS, because his mother?s Israeli conversion was not deemed good enough ? is that they are necessary to prevent intermarriage. Our young people might meet non-Jews, and who knows where that could lead? But are we seriously worried that the balding thirtysomething men of the Veras or their opponents were going to be wooed by the likes of ?Mike Diamond?, leave their wives and set up a same-sex, intermarried home?

I genuinely wonder what it is exactly that our communal guardians are frightened of. The non-Jewish men involved in the row describe themselves as ?friends of the community?. You know the type, one told me. ?Massive Judeophiles, the types that wish you ?well over the fast? and had horas at their weddings because there were so many Jews there.? Are these people really such a threat?

Sometimes I do wonder if Anglo-Jewry?s bigwigs imagine hordes of non-Jews banging at the gate, demanding to be let in to this wonderful club of ours. Why else make our rules on conversion and the like so severe, unless it is to prevent us from being swamped by these masses of would-be Jews?

There is a simple enough solution. Apparently, the Turkish amateur leagues allow up to four non-Turks in each team. Muslim teams require only that players honour the Muslim dress code: they don?t have to be Muslims. So why not a similarly light touch in the MSFL, fashioning it into a mainly Jewish league that demands to see no one?s papers? Remember, this is not about joining a synagogue, but simply playing a game of football.

Meanwhile, the Veras are now playing non-Jewish football which, hilariously, is described as ?faster and harder?. They have joined the Camden Musicians? League. One Vera worries though. ?Will we have to declare our musical abilities? Will players with no musical associations be excluded? Is it good enough that my paternal grandmother used to play the piano??