Arms upraised, they punched the air, shrieking at the top of their lungs in Tigrinyan. An Irish team had just scored its first goal against an unidentified Milanese team. I was confused. “Why are they rooting for the Irish?” I queried my companion. “Because they’re Africans,” he snorted. “They want to see the Italians punished for their racism.”
My first soccer match in a decade, I needed to be educated. Little did I know how much I required. Not just to the sport, but the politics Italians invest in it. Not just any Italians, but this bar full of Eritreans, near the Corso Buenos Aires, in a poor residential neighborhood teeming with migrants. I order us Peroni. We’re served Red Stripe.
I thought back to this evening repeatedly last week, as I read through Israeli press revelations that Italy’s current soccer star, Mario Balotelli, was of Jewish background. Well, not exactly. Raised in a foster Jewish family would be more accurate. Nevertheless, it was enough for the Israeli press, including rightwing publications, to claim him as one of our own.
“Welcome to the home team,” I muttered, as I noted that one of the bigger stories about Balotelli’s Jewishness was being run in a newspaper that had taken the side of Tel Aviv rioters several weeks before, protesting the influx of African migrants to the country. “He must be a highly skilled migrant,” I joked to my wife, with more than a hint of sarcasm
Jennifer groaned. I’d appropriated a term used to describe persons like her, who are given special dispensation to live in EU states badly in need of educated laborers. One of the reasons we’d been able to settle in Germany was because of her professional background. It’s far more important than the fact that her last name is obviously Polish (Crakow,) and that her immigration papers list her as religious identity as being Jewish.
For a moment, I hoped that this is what the Israeli press was doing, in giving this Italian-born child of Ghanaian migrants a break. Like those Italians who identified with his achievements, Israelis too could reconcile themselves to his skin color simply through his sportsmanship. What’s not to appreciate about a virtuoso footballer, especially for a country that equally indulges Europe’s fanatical obsession with soccer?
I was projecting, clearly, as though Italy were somehow more enlightened than Israel, by imagining that Israelis could learn about equality from them. I knew better. Yes, there was no arguing that the Italian national team was clearly making a political statement by including Balotelli. However, like Israel, Italy still has a long way to go to in order to make African immigrants feel like they are part of the greater team.
Twice, for example, following Italy’s triumph over Germany in the Euro 2012 championships, Italy’s leading sports newspapers served as a necessary reminder. Gazzeto Dello Sport rudely portrayed him as a giant ape (King Kong, to be precise,) while Tuttosport ran the headline “We Made Them All Black,” next to a front page photo of Balotelli, who’d stripped his shirt off, showing off his chest, following his second goal.
For followers of Italian football, this was nothing compared to the insults Balotelli has been subject to over the years. What was so reprehensible about these newspapers’ coverage is that it was so explicitly laden with ambivalence. They simply could not bring themselves to complement the athlete for his victories on behalf of Italy. Any acknowledgement had to be accompanied by an insulting reminder of his ethnicity.
The reality, I suspect, is that Israeli papers were doing something equally complex. The reasons, however, were different. For one, Balotelli had led the Italian team to dramatic victories over two European countries Jews could not be more ambivalent about: Germany and the United Kingdom. For reasons associated with the Holocaust, and Israel’s relations with it’s colonial parent state, you can understand why. Their defeat, at the hands (or rather feet) of a young black Italian, was its own displaced reward.
The fact that Balotelli helped Italy defeat Germany in a place as significant to Jews as Warsaw, following a highly publicized trip to Auschwitz, is good enough reason to guarantee him favorable press coverage. Factor in recent revelations about his having been adopted and raised by a Jewish family, and it confirms his appeal. Who cares if Israel’s leading politicians had been inciting against African migrants, calling them a cancer. Given the vicarious pleasure the footballer had given us, we’d make him an exception.
Part of Balotelli’s appeal is that he occupies a familiar position in Italian society, one we can identify with. Being black, he is an outsider. It is only though excelling at his trade that he has a shot at being recognized as an equal to other Europeans. It matters little that it is soccer, though, of course, this broadens his potential appeal, as it is a bit more heroic than if he were, for example, a successful attorney, or a wealthy trader. Still, sixty-seven years after the Holocaust, we sense the continuity of Balotelli’s experience with our own.
If only Israelis could generalize their appreciation of Balotelli, beyond what he has done for us, in light of the transgressions of Europe against Jewry, and the continuing psychological burden of the Holocaust that we bear. We have needs that are more recent, and more pressing, than that. Take, for example, the fact that Israel faces Africa, a continent riddled with wars and famine. It was inevitable that at some point, we would find ourselves more intimate and more familiar with our southern neighbors.
Not long after arriving in Turin, my wife and I had to switch briefly from the guest apartment we were staying in, to a hotel. Another visitor had reserved it for a weekend, several months before. Taking our dogs out for their morning outing, I remember walking into the elevator, only to be greeted by an Ultra-Orthodox Jew. In Italy, such occasions are rare. Especially rare when that haredi happens to have been of obviously Ethiopian background. I assumed his presence had something to do with the local synagogue, nearby.
When we reached the ground floor, the haredi held the doors open for me, so I could get my dogs out without having them close on the leash. I nodded, letting the boys go ahead of me. “Todarabah,” (Thank you very much,) I said to him in Hebrew. His eyes registered a look of intense surprise. I imagine he was about as taken aback as I was that I’d recognized him as Jewish, given the context. To this day, I still cannot get over the fact that I was able to show him this courtesy, in Italy. Here’s to more opportunities like it.