SOUTH AFRICA – “Just don’t say you’re from Israel,” several people told me just before I departed for South Africa, to cover the World Cup. At first I listened to them and tried to avoid the issue of nationality. Yet on the second day there, a local guy heard me speaking to a friend in Hebrew and asked whether we’re from Israel. “Yes,” we replied, and his eyes shone with glee.
“Oh, I love Israel. You’re living in a complicated country and nobody understands your situation,” he told us, while introducing himself as Hector. As it turned out, Hector’s brother is living and working in Israel. “He told me how beautiful it is in your country. I’m still dreaming of coming to Tel Aviv the first chance I get,” Hector said.
That same Hector started recounting Israel’s story as if he was one of us. He spoke about terror organizations, which sometimes hide under cover of peace groups, told us about the similarities between South Africa and our tiny country, and even displayed astonishing familiarity with our sports teams.
A day later, I arrived at the airport in order to check the prices of a local flight. After discovering that it’s quite an expensive deal, I spotted the small sign of a bus company operated by South Africa’s Tourism Ministry. This time, I did not hide my Israeli nationality when asked about it by one of the representatives there.
“I’m from Israel, do you know it?” I asked. “Sure, we love Israel. Just like South Africa, in your country you must also suffer from a negative and inaccurate image,” the woman replied, and surprised me with her familiarity with my homeland. “Everyone thinks that your country is only about wars and bombs and terror, but I heard that it’s not like that.” I told her that she’s right, and that I too heard scary stories about South Africa, yet all I found so far were genuine, polite, and nice people.
Friends from US and PortugalWell, as it turns out, the South Africans who suffered so terribly under the apartheid regime – which some in the world compare to Israel – happen to like us. Later that day, a short while before the US-Ghana game, my friends and I met people from other countries who also feel sympathy for us. The guys from Ghana wanted to find out more information about us, while displaying their familiarity with almost all Israeli soccer teams.
As to the Americans, it was hard not to be impressed by the number of fans who arrived from the US. A sea of people wearing blue and red flooded the street behind the stadium. Chris told us he is with us on the war on terror, Amy said she visited Israel before, and Jonathan happened to be Jewish. All of them apparently like us.
Next, two girls from Portugal wanted to learn some words in Hebrew, and in the German team’s training camp the journalists smiled when I said I’m from Israel. Later, an Italian journalist fondly recalled his visit to the Ramat Gan stadium where he covered an Italian team playing in Israel.
To be honest, it appears that we are the only ones who are preoccupied with the question of our legitimacy in the world. Most people do not have a firm view about Israel and they treat us just like they would anyone else.
I don’t know why we think the whole world hates us, but if there is one thing I learned in South Africa, it’s that our problem is our image. At the end of the day, we need to continue being who we are – smiling, intelligent, and warm, without trying to change. Those who didn’t like us before the blockade, or the flotilla, or some battle, will continue to object to us. Yet for most people, Israel is just Israel.