To Americans whose only understanding of Israel comes from headlines detailing the latest political strife, the term “Israeli Arab” may sound like a contradiction. In a country where national identity is a volatile subject, even giving a name to the 20 percent of Israel’s population with Arabic ancestry is a fraught proposition. Calling them Palestinians, or Arab citizens of Israel, means choosing a side. As Mazen Ghanayem, president of the Bnei Sakhnin soccer team, puts it, “We are always placed between the hammer and the anvil.”
The first team from an Arab town to win the Israeli cup, and thus represent Israel in European competition, Bnei Sakhnin became a symbol of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews; in a post-championship interview, one player approvingly quotes Shimon Peres on the soccer pitch. But shouldering that mantle comes with a new set of challenges that make up the focus of Christopher Browne’s documentary After The Cup: Sons Of Sakhnin United. Winning a symbolic victory is one thing. Turning that symbol into a fact of daily life is another.
Although its players include Jews and foreign nationals, Bnei Sakhnin is regarded as an Arab team by both its supporters and its foes. During a match against Beitar Jerusalem, ethnic tensions flare, with Beitar supporters chanting anti-Arab slogans and shouting racist taunts. There are those for whom the thrill of the match subsumes all other concerns, like the Arab counterman eagerly awaiting the first kickoff: “Temple Mount, no Temple Mount, I don’t care.” But Browne presents little evidence of such moderate views among Jewish fans. He sticks to Bnei Sakhnin’s point of view, even when that circumscribes a larger understanding.
After The Cup focuses on Bnei Sakhnin’s bid to remain part of Israeli’s Premier League, although it doesn’t explain why a year after winning the championship, they have to struggle to stay out of 11th place, which would result in the team’s demotion to a lower league. As the team nosedives, tensions unsurprisingly surface between Ghanayem and Jewish coach Eyal Lachman, whose determination to keep 11 Arabs on the field irks the team’s foreign players. But Browne doesn’t give a sense of how those disagreements affect the mood in the locker room, and his fleeting man-on-the-street cutaways provide only a vague overview of the larger context. There’s a great story to be told here, but After The Cup feels more like an outline than a finished draft.