A new sports uniform has been accused of “fomenting terrorism” as well as inspiring “violence and hatred” and no, it’s not the Knicks’ hateful new bright orange duds. The accused team is a Chilean soccer club called Palestino ( Club Deportivo Palestino) and their offense was incorporating an image of historic Palestine on their jerseys.
The controversy is, on the face, bizarre. The Seattle Seahawks have a picture of a bird on their helmets. The Denver Broncos have a horse. Of course, Palestino, an esteemed first-division club that has been around for almost a century, would picture Palestine. But, alas, in this day and age when Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are divided by a crisscross of concrete barriers, barbed wire fences and armed check points, the vision of an undivided country provokes rage among those who have a vested interest in walls.
To understand the controversy engulfing the Santiago-based soccer club, it is first worth knowing that there is no country in the Western world with a closer connection to the Palestinian territories than Chile. With over half a million residents of Palestinian origin, Chile was the primary destination for those fleeing the Middle East both before and during the wars that surrounded the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
In 1920, Palestinian émigrés started a soccer club to rally around called Palestino. (The club’s creation in 1920 is a rather inconvenient truth for a segment of Israeli hardliners who claim that a Palestinian identity did not exist until decades after Israel’s founding.)
Over the last ninety-four years, Palestino has represented the Palestinian national colors, held moments of silence during periods when the Gaza Strip was being bombed and engaged in numerous charitable efforts to alleviate the suffering of refugees. It is a team that has consciously positioned themselves over the years as a symbol of historic remembrance. In line with this history, they changed the number 1 on their uniforms to look like the shape of historic Palestine and the uniting of the current Israeli and Palestinian territories.
It is for this that the team was charged by the Simon Wiesenthal Center with “fomenting terrorist intent.” Gabriel Zaliasnik, the former president of the Chilean Jewish Organization, said that the shirt incites “violence and hatred” and has pledged go to FIFA to get them banned.
In response, the most well known of Chilean soccer stars of Palestinian origin, Roberto Bishara, replied, “I hope they [leaders of the Chilean Jewish community] don’t go to FIFA because this is a question of football. So I wish that instead of worrying about a jersey, they worried about the children that die day after day in Palestine.”