When in Rome, Do as the Jerusalemites Do

One of the most touching moments of Samuele Giannetti’s 15-year career as vice-president of the Jerusalem branch of the Roma Soccer Club for Youth happened in Rome in 2018, at a Jewish school itself.

Giannetti had arrived in the Italian capital with a group of middle school students to take part in an international youth football tournament. It was late April, on the eve of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and Giannetti, who had founded the Roma Football School in Jerusalem a decade earlier, was gathering the Arab players on the team and advising them on what to expect the next day could .

“I explained the Holocaust to them in Arabic. They had never heard of it before; nobody ever taught them. I told them we were going to the Jewish school and at 10 a.m. we were silent for a minute while the siren sounded. I told them they could wait in front of the school if they prefer.”

It was a surreal sight to see Palestinian Muslim children standing silently on Yom HaShoah.

The players said they came as a team with their Jewish friends and would join them wherever they went. On Yom HaShoah, Arabs and Jews stood side by side and showed solidarity with the victims.

“It was a surreal sight to see Palestinian Muslim children standing silently on Yom HaShoah,” Giannetti said. “I don’t know how that would be received at home or if anyone would ever think of something like that.”

Born in Rome, Giannetti says he was “born in football”, which remains his greatest passion to this day. The 50-year-old computer engineer made aliyah to Israel in 1990 and settled in Jerusalem. He and a group of Italian friends formed the first Middle Eastern Roma fan club called Roma Club Gerusalemme in 1998. The idea of ​​starting a football school came after he organized a series of adult tournaments in collaboration with the Italian consulate in the early 2000s.

The Roma Club Jerusalem was founded in 2008 with seven children and an Arab-Israeli coach who had studied at the Hebrew University. “The children were 8 and 9 years old and the costs were covered by their parents and some donations.”

Today the school has 145 students ranging from 5-year-old kindergarteners to high school juniors in their late teens. Coming from all over the city, they arrive at the field in West Jerusalem’s Gonen neighborhood, wearing the official Roma uniform, their fancy knee-high socks. At times, Palestinian children from neighborhoods like Beit Hanina and Ras al-Amoud pass the ball to settlers from Kiryat Arba, a Jewish suburb of Hebron.

“Here, every child feels at home on the pitch, whether it’s a Jew, Muslim, Christian or Druse. The color of your skin doesn’t matter, neither does your gender,” says Giannetti, “we have fun together and through the fun of football we teach kids how to behave on and off the pitch. We teach them to respect each other and their trainers, and to reject verbal violence, which often leads to physical violence.”

Granted, an international football club can have a level playing field between Jews and Arabs in a contested city like Jerusalem. Before the COVID pandemic, students traveled to Rome every year for tournaments and training. Four years ago, the partnership between the Roma club and its Jerusalem branch was formalized and three coaches from Italy came to Israel to coach the kids at a training camp, one of them former Brazilian world champion and retired Roma player Aldair Nascimento dos santos

But not all groups in the city are equally represented. At peak times, Arab children made up 25% of the players. Two of the six coaches speak Arabic. But COVID, Giannetti admits, has reduced the number of Arab players in the school, as well as the number of Ethiopians.

“The atmosphere of insecurity affects us not only during wars but also during the pandemic,” he said.

One of the Arab children who stopped coming during COVID but has now returned is eighth grader Elias Khouri. His father Ibrahim said he prefers a Jewish-run club to the Arab clubs in East Jerusalem, both because of the high professional level and the discipline taught to the children.

“I think it’s important that Arab and Jewish children play together,” said Khouri. “I like that. My other son’s kindergarten is mixed and I prefer mixed environments.” The Christian-Arab lawyer grew up in Haifa before moving to Jerusalem, but grew up in an exclusively Arab environment.

Elhanan Miller

“This school sets Elias on the right path for the future,” he concluded.

Giannetti agrees that the football school gives hope for a better future to young people from working-class neighborhoods who would otherwise spend their time on the streets.

“There are Jewish children who live a kilometer away from here and would never meet Arab children who live hundreds of meters away from them,” he said. “Why is it like that? That’s the situation here in Israel.”

But not everyone involved in the Roma Club Gerusalemme is satisfied with the educational and social goals formulated by Giannetti. Fabio Sonnino, the club’s co-founder and its president, said Roma Club should stick to football and leave other agendas alone.

“This politicization bothers me,” said Sonnino. “I’m a Roma fan. When the ball goes in the net and I scream like crazy, I don’t care about Arabs or Jews. I don’t care about politics.”

Sonnino, a Roman native who emigrated to Israel in 1988, said raising the Arab-Israeli issue in Italy is like “doing the dirty laundry in public.” Sonnino never played football himself; he suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. But like his friend Giannetti, he says football is in his genes.

“I came to the stadium for the first time when I was 9 years old and I can still remember every detail of the game: the final score and who scored the goal,” recalls Sonnino. “I decided to move to Israel because I like it here, but I packed my love for the club in my suitcase and took it with me.”

His late father, who became a fan in 1960, even donated money to save the team from bankruptcy.

“He gave about 60,000 lire, which was a whole month’s salary at the time,” Sonnino said.

But bitter anti-Semitic comments from Italian football fans on Facebook make Sonnino skeptical that his activities in Jerusalem will ever make a difference in his home country.

“I was threatened, told we should be sent to the gas chambers, called a dirty Jew. I told Samuele [Giannetti]: ‘Don’t expose yourself too much because they will hate you no matter what you do.’ I’m a Roma fan, not an educator.”

“If we present this [issue] In Italy, it’s always seen through the Catholic lens: “Let’s love one another, let’s turn the other cheek”. I do not like it.”

But regardless of whether Arab-Jewish youth football matches have any impact on the Italians or not, the team’s visits to Italy seem to shatter ignorance on both sides. Three years ago, the children visited the Mosque of Rome, the largest Muslim place of worship in the western world. The Jewish children marveled at what they saw and bombarded Samuele Giannetti with questions.

“I told them I didn’t have all the answers. It’s not like I walk into a mosque every day,” says Giannetti, who has been teaching himself colloquial Arabic for the past six years. “‘But you have Muslim friends here. You can ask them and they will answer you. Some of them speak English or we can translate,” I said.

“That’s how connections are made. We have one language on the pitch: the language of sport. But it doesn’t end there.”

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