God Speed: “Race Cars for Peace” in the Holy City

God Speed: “Race Cars for Peace” in the Holy City

This article originally appeared on Patheos at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionnow/2013/07/god-speed-race-cars-for-peace-in-the-holy-city/

By Shalom Goldman, Duke University

In the US, spectator sports and religious conviction often go hand in hand. Americans are used to players, and teams, who pray and play, invoking Jesus before, during, and after games. This happens on the basketball court, in baseball stadiums, and on football fields. And it is most notable on stock car racetracks, where prayers, along with game results, are often heard over the public address  systems. The tone and style of this sports religiosity is that of Evangelical Christianity, and thus the sports and prayer connection is stronger in the South, though by no means absent in other parts of the country.

In Israel, where soccer is king, religiosity and sports are often seen as antithetical. The fiercely loyal fans of Israel’s thirty professional soccer teams are drawn, for the most part, from the secular Jewish population. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews (who together, comprise some 25% of the country’s Jewish population) are seldom seen at games—especially as many soccer games are held on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. But in mid-June, in an event viewed by tens of thousands of Israelis of all ethnic and religious persuasions, race cars were seen and heard screeching along Jerusalem’s roads. And this “Formula One Jerusalem Peace Road Show” was held on weekdays—to offend as few religious sensibilities as possible—and on a track that would draw Arab and Jewish spectators together.

In Jerusalem, where the soccer fans are famously (and as we shall see, in some instances infamously) loyal, the Saturday games at Teddy Stadium are an anathema to the city’s Rabbinic establishment. And the Orthodox parties in Israel’s notoriously contentious parliamentary coalitions have long been engaged in a struggle to outlaw Sabbath soccer games

Tensions linked to religious identity do emerge at Israeli soccer games—in the form of racist chants aimed at Arab players and fans—but these are nationalist tensions, and are not associated with what Americans would consider ‘religious behavior’ such as prayer. Recently, fans of Beitar Jerusalem, the team associated with the Right-leaning Likud party, rioted to protest plans to hire  two Muslim soccer players from Chechnya.

As the NY Times reported on January 30, 2013 (“Jerusalem Journal,” by Jodi Rudoren): “The angry, defiant exchanges that punctuated Tuesday night’s unusually tense game here came amid intense protests by Beitar Jerusalem supporters over the team owner’s plans to recruit two Muslim players from Chechnya. Some young men had unfurled a banner at the previous game declaring ‘Beitar pure forever,’ which reminded many here of Nazi Germany’s purging of Jews from athletics in 1933 and prompted statewide discussion about racism on and off the field.”

In that statewide discussion, Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres, roundly condemned racism on the sports field and in the stadium. But many of the fans felt unfairly condemned as hooligans because of the actions of rowdy and at times violent spectators.

Many Israeli Arabs (who comprise 15% of the Israeli population) also attend professional soccer games, often rooting for Arab players. And in response to chants from Jewish fans , especially those of Beitar Jerusalem fans, they have responded with their own anti-Jewish taunts. And recently, an Arab team, Bnei Sachnin, a team with some Jewish players and many Jewish fans, has risen to prominence.

Israeli sports fans with whom I have discussed these tensions have been surprised to learn that Evangelical Christianity has such strong links to American sports. In response I tell them many great, and not so great American teams, coaches and players have attested to their personal faith in Jesus—and attribute victories (and resolve in defeat) to divine intervention. This type of openly expressed religiosity is unthinkable in Israeli sports.

Perhaps the most ‘Christian’ of all American sports is stock car racing, which is also the spectator sport with the largest fan base—75 million Americans—more than 20% of the population. NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, is the governing body of these races, which are held throughout the year. From the time that these races gained a wide national and international audience, the sport has been linked to Evangelical Christianity. Though some Southern preachers objected to the link between car racing and bootlegging (which is how the first stock car racers got their driving skills), by the 1970s “ the antagonism between the pulpit and the speedway has been consigned to the history books.” (“Racing for Jesus,” Christianity Today, June, 2008)

At the many NASCAR racetracks throughout the American South and West, prayer meetings by fans and drivers are held before races. And stock car racing’s bootlegging roots are not forgotten—the great American beer companies sponsor the races, and beer drinking is a big part of the spectator experience. One could even say that beer drinking is a component of NASCAR fan ritual behavior.

For these and many other reasons stock car racing is the last spectator sport one would expect to find promoted in Jerusalem, city of soccer and bastion of religious and nationalist orthodoxies. If such a car event were to be held in Israel it would make sense to have it in Eilat, on Israel’s small and only recently-approved international status race track. And Eilat, an assertively secular Red Sea resort town, is not a place that conjures up visions of religious enthusiasm.

So this past month, in mid-June, Jerusalem, holy to the three monotheistic faiths, was witness to a world-class stock car demonstration that raised some hackles on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide—but also satisfied many spectators among both communities. The Jerusalem car event wasn’t exactly a race; there was no competition between car drivers.

Though the initial idea for the Formula One was promoted by Israeli and international corporations it could not have proceeded without government support and intervention. Especially enthusiastic was Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who just happens to be a racing car enthusiast.

Formula One Jerusalem was a demonstration of race car capabilities, but more importantly, it was an event that would, in Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat’s words, “position Jerusalem as a global capital of culture.”  In response, some local pundits  wondered if Jerusalem’s cultural bonafides wouldn’t be better served in other ways.

For weeks before the event the Israel Foreign Affairs Ministry website enthusiastically promoted the car demonstration:

“For Israeli motor-sport fans, the upcoming Formula One Jerusalem Peace Road Show is a dream come true. The June 13-14 event will make history when the sleek F1 cars zip through the streets of Jerusalem against the background of the Old City walls.”

Dubbing the event “The Jerusalem Formula: The Peace Road Show,” the promoters, which included the Ferrari company  and American gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper Israel Today, promised that “the world’s fastest automobiles will be magnificently displayed. The track, alongside Jerusalem’s most notable sites, will be one of the most breathtaking in the history of racing, attracting thousands of spectators and motor sports enthusiasts from all backgrounds, nationalities and faiths.”

The improvised race-track, which ran through west Jerusalem neighborhoods and along the 15th-century walls of the Old City,  was festooned with banners proclaiming the sponsorship of Israel Today—a free paper dubbed by its critics “bibi-iton” because it is an ‘iton’ (newspaper ) that grants daily enthusiastic endorsement to ‘Bibi’ (Benjamin Netanyahu), Israel’s Prime Minister.  During the two-day hoopla surrounding the Formula One events, ‘paper boys’—and girls—waded into the crowds to hand out free copies of Israel Today—a tabloid that makes the NY tabloid, The Daily News, seem like a stately newspaper.

Large sections of Jerusalem were cordoned off to traffic on Thursday and Friday, June 13 and 14th, and spectators were encouraged to line the streets for the event. Which, as I can attest to, they duly did. Somewhere between 70,000-100,000 people watched the race cars from sidewalk, balconies, and rooftops. The sound of the racing cars was deafening, the crowds were very dense, and the heat was intense. But as far as I could tell, the assembled were having a good time. And uniquely, the crowds included Jerusalemites of all kinds, including Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families with many kids in tow, and Palestinian young men who watched the proceedings with groups of friends.

Religiously conservative leaders on both the Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish sides of the divide had criticized city government for holding the event and told their followers to stay home. But, judging from  the presence of many spectators from both Arab and Jewish communities, many of whom were dressed in their respective traditional garb, these warnings were ineffective. Perhaps most telling were  the remarks of a staunch ideologue, Matti Dan of the Settler Movement. He was heard complaining to a senior police officer at the Formula One that this event was corrupting the city’s children and modeling inappropriate behavior. The complaint was registered while both the police officer and the Settler leader were watching the race together.

Shalom Goldman, Religion Department, Duke University