Why Scotland’s fiercest soccer rivalry features Israeli vs. Palestinian flags



LONDON (JTA) — Next weekend marks the Scottish soccer season’s first Old Firm matchup — the nickname for the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, two of the country’s most storied clubs, both based in Glasgow.

The teams play a few times each season, and at each match, even though only a few thousand Jews live in Glasgow, there’s a decent chance that fans will see Israeli and Palestinian flags flying in the stands.

Across Scotland, soccer and sociology have always been tightly intertwined, and many Scottish teams have become repositories for clashing identities, politics and histories. But the Israeli-Palestinian flag phenomenon, which started around 15 years ago, leaves Scottish Jewish fans stuck in the middle of a political divide that they would like to escape while at the soccer pitch.

“We want to see it stopped,” said Paul Edlin of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. “The clubs don’t like it, but they won’t stop it from happening.”

Flags on the terraces at Rangers’ Ibrox stadium and at Celtic Park are common sights, more so than in England, where the marriage between football and politics tends to be much weaker. At Celtic and Rangers, Irish tricolors and British Unions Jacks are so common that they are accepted and immediately recognized as substitutes for the clubs’ own banners.

“There is no reason to fly the flags of countries at football matches for any reason — neither Israeli nor Palestinian,” Edlin added.

Several Scottish teams have historical ties to local Protestant and Catholic communities, a product of over a century of sectarianism. Celtic, founded in 1887 by destitute Irish Catholic immigrants, has remained deeply attached to its Irish roots and its fans have historically been linked to political causes, protesting against anti-Catholic discrimination in Scotland and supporting Irish political autonomy.

Many Celtic fans feel deep solidarity with causes across the Irish Sea and among some, especially the few hundred strong in the vocal Green Brigade fan group, there is a perceived parallel between Irish nationalism and Palestinian liberation. (Pro-Palestinian sentiment is very widespread in broader Irish society and its government.)

Celtic fans.

A Palestinian flag seen among Irish flags at a match against Rangers in Glasgow in 2018. (Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

“There is this grouping that have this narrative that Celtic is all about Irish republicanism and that they speak for Celtic,” said Lord Ian Livingston, a Jewish member of British parliament and a former Celtic board member director. “If you are saying that you side with the oppressed against the strong, with anti-imperialist forces against imperialism, then this is an easy leap for them.”

In Glasgow, the Green Brigade has raised thousands of pounds for Palestinian charities and since 2019 has supported a football academy in the West Bank, called Aida Celtic, based at the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. Livingston, a member of the Conservative party, was seen as a controversial executive among the team’s liberal fanbase, and he resigned from the team in 2017 in response to fan pressure.

When Celtic fans began adopting Palestinian flags in the late 2000s, at the Rangers’ Ibrox stadium — where a portrait of the Queen stares down at players in the home team’s dressing room — the knee-jerk response among some fans was to hoist Israeli flags among the Union Jacks and Northern Irish crosses.

“It is a small group, but I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable, and it shouldn’t be there,” said Livingston, a Conservative party member. “Neither should Israeli flags be at Ibrox because it is not about politics. The vast majority would say that it has nothing to do with football.”

There are around 30 Jews who regularly attend Celtic matches, and the increasing visibility of the Green Brigade has attracted some attention. UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, has repeatedly fined the team for the Palestinian flag displays.

The Jewish Representative Council complained to Celtic when the Green Brigade hoisted hundreds of Palestinian flags in advance of a special send-off for Celtic legend Scott Brown in May 2021. Celtic described the display as “unacceptable” and took the flags down.

“It doesn’t make it easy for the Jewish boys that support Celtic,” said Gerard Minster, 52, a diehard Celtic fan who is Jewish. “Whenever there is trouble in Israel and Palestine, it seems to raise its head again. It can be challenging, but it is all part of it, and it doesn’t put me off supporting Celtic.”

Celtic fans.

Many Celtic fans identify strongly with Irish nationalist and liberal political causes. (Rob Casey/SNS Group via Getty Images)

The emergence of the flags as a proxy for the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is to some less about the details of Israeli and Palestinian politics and more a reflection of much deeper sectarian issues in Scotland. Both Celtic and Rangers have had Israeli players, many of them well liked — Nir Bitton, for instance, finished a nine-year-stint at Celtic Park with a standing ovation from 60,000 Celtic fans in May. (Another Israeli player, Liel Abada, remains on the Celtic roster.)

While the Catholic and Protestant divide has largely vanished in England, it has survived as an undercurrent in Scotland, and many believe that football rivalries have helped sustain it.

“It is still massive,” said David Kaplan, a Jewish supporter of Heart of Midlothian, an Edinburgh club historically associated with the Protestant population. “Every club in Scotland has a religious affiliation in Scotland. Even if they don’t admit it, they all do.”

This has made Scotland’s 5,000 or so Jews an oddity in the Scottish soccer landscape. Unencumbered by the religious and cultural baggage of their Christian peers, many Jews can choose more freely which teams they want to root for.

“Jews felt that they were caught in the middle,” said Harvey Kaplan of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in Glasgow. “Jews also probably had less bother because … Protestants and Catholics were more likely to be fighting each other.”

Historically, most Jews have supported Rangers and Hearts (the shorthand for Heart of Midlothian). When Jews arrived as immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their children mostly adopted the teams of their friends and classmates. Most of them sent their children to Protestant schools, Kaplan explained, because they were more open to a range of students, in opposition to Catholic schools, which were focused on Catholic students.

Nir Bitton and Liel Abada.

Celtic’s two Israeli players at the time — Nir Bitton, left, and Liel Abada — hold the Scottish Premiership Trophy after a match between Celtic and Motherwell at Celtic Park in Glasgow, May 14, 2022. (Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

“This would mean that you would likely come out as a Rangers supporter,” he said.

There is also, however, a sizable group of Jews that started following Celtic in the late 1960s when Third Lanark, a south Glasgow team with a large Jewish following, went bust. At the time, Celtic was at their height, winning nine consecutive league titles and the European Cup in 1967 — so the Third Lanark fans hopped on the bandwagon.

Had Third Lanark survived, it might have developed into a team with a reputation for Jewish support, much like Tottenham in England. In the 1920s and 1930s, Third Lanark, situated near a Jewish neighborhood, even fielded one of the very few Scottish Jewish professional footballers, Sam Latter. As late as 1960, the Jewish Chronicle reported that a quarter of the 6,000-strong crowd at Third Lanark’s stadium were Jews.

In England, the Jewish footprint on the pitch has tended to be minimal, and in Scotland, it has been even smaller. While there are occasionally discussions about possible up-and-coming Jewish players unearthed by Celtic and Rangers fans on message boards, many are Irish or Scottish players who happen to have vaguely Jewish-sounding surnames. (One notable Jewish player from Scottish history was the almost forgotten Lanarkshire-born Joe Abraham, who became likely the first ever Jew to play professional top-flight football in Britain when he debuted for the Glasgow club Partick Thistle in 1897.) A handful of Israeli players have come to ply their trade in England and Scotland, and Celtic — emerging from a decade of dominance — has been an attractive lure.

Ultimately, however, Scotland’s Jewish community is shrinking — down from some 20,000 in the early 1960s to perhaps even less 5,000 today — and there might not be “a next generation” of players and fans “to ever worry about,” said Minster.

The problems preoccupying Scotland’s aging Jewish core — that its youth are bleeding away to Britain’s Jewish capitals London and Manchester in search of opportunities are not returning — are common in smaller Jewish communities across the United Kingdom.

“What comes next is going to be an irrelevance because the Jewish community is so small,” Minister said. “I can name probably 20 or 30 Jewish season ticket holders at Hearts today — only one of them lives in Edinburgh.”

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