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AFL star’s post on Gaza could lead to suspension of Jewish-Muslim match

Ashley Browne
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AFL star’s post on Gaza could lead to suspension of Jewish-Muslim match

Published: 27 October 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Former Richmond player Bachar Houli’s sharing of a video that accuses Israel of a ‘genocide’ in ‘Palestine’ has led to the likely suspension of the Unity Cup.

First it was the university campuses. Then the arts community. And now, the anger, trauma and community division over the October 7 massacre by Hamas of 1400 Israelis, and the subsequent retaliation by Israel in Gaza, has spread to the Australian sporting field, leading to the likely suspension of a ground-breaking Australian Rules football partnership between the Jewish and Islamic communities in Melbourne.

The central figure is Bachar Houli, the three-time Richmond Muslim AFL premiership player, whose foundation has partnered with Maccabi Victoria and the Henry Jolson Foundation to stage an annual football game, the Unity Cup. The event pits teams from the Jewish and Islamic communities against each other, after a week of joint training sessions and cross-cultural educational and social engagements.

There have been three matches, dating back to 2019, with the first of these played at the iconic MCG the day after the AFL Grand Final in front of large and enthusiastic crowds.

But all it took was for one inflammatory post from Richmond’s former player Houli last Saturday to jeopardise all that work. Houli, who has 46,400 followers on Instagram, shared a video, titled “A genocide is occurring in Palestine”.

Alarm bells went off everywhere almost immediately and it was particularly troubling for the AFL and the Richmond Football Club, both of which are key partners of the Houli Foundation. Newly-minted AFL chief executive Andrew Dillon is a board member, while the Melbourne Cricket Club as well as the Victorian and Federal governments are also listed as partners.

By virtue of his AFL stardom, Houli has come to be regarded as one of the Islamic community’s most celebrated figures and certainly one of its most influential. In the aftermath of the bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, for which Israel was initially, but soon after wrongly accused of instigating, Houli was implored to say something on behalf of his people.

“Bachar is an intelligent guy, but he can be easily pressured,” a friend of his from the AFL industry told The Jewish Independent. “It didn’t come from a position of malice, but it was propaganda.”

Senior figures at the AFL and Richmond, including influential Jewish benefactors of the club from the Mandie, Danos and Napthali families, contacted Houli and despite some initial resistance, he took it down and replaced it with a more conciliatory message, which said in part, “I will always advocate for inclusion and bringing people together. The last couple of weeks have taken a heavy toll on us all and I want to remind people that I do NOT condone killings of ANY INNOCENT people regardless of their faith or culture.

“I remind my fellow Australians that any racism, discrimination or acts of violence to innocent people is totally unacceptable.”

While most in the Jewish community welcomed his revised message, there are some who believe he could have gone further and expressly condemned the atrocities that occurred in southern Israel.

Maccabi, and in particular, the AJAX senior and junior football clubs, who provided the bulk of the Jewish players for the Unity team, were shattered when they learned of Houli’s initial post. “He has this great track record of building bridges, not tearing them down,” said AJAX senior club president, Alida Lipton.

Dialogue between the Jolson family and the Houli Foundation is continuing. The late Henry Jolson was a key figure behind the Peace Team, the combined Israeli-Palestinian team that played in the AFL International Cup in 2008 and 2011. His family’s foundation has continued the legacy with its support of the Unity Cup and the Houli Foundation, which it hopes to continue.

The Unity Cup was not played last month because of a clash of dates with Sukkot. Plans to resume the game early next year have been shelved for now. Given the vitriol towards Israel and her supporters from significant sectors of the Islamic community, there is little appetite for the game to resume.

Earlier this year, the AFL briefly banned the display of Israeli flags as a show of support for North Melbourne’s rising Jewish star, Harry Sheezel. The Houli episode is another disappointing development for Australian Jewish sports fans, who have been hurt by the silence from the nation’s peak sporting bodies in the aftermath of October 7.

By contrast, in the United States there have been many  commemorative activities and messages of support from all the major leagues and their teams. These include social media posts, moments of silence and singing of the Israeli national anthem  before games. The Washington Wizards NBA team warmed up in T-shirts featuring the faces of abducted Israelis before a recent game.

A senior AFL executive, who asked not to be named, told The Jewish Independent that the AFL had a long-stated policy of not officially commenting on international disputes, citing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine as an example.

They said that comparisons with events such as Black Lives Matter and the Christchurch Mosque shooting, about which the AFL industry was outspoken, were not valid. “BLM solidarity (when the players took a knee before games) was an initiative driven by our players, while after Christchurch we wanted to express solidarity with our nearest neighbour, especially as the act was perpetrated by an Australian.

“But it also needs to be said that we were absolutely horrified by Hamas and their actions in Israel, and we mourn with the Jewish community,” they said.

Still, Maccabi Australia has called for some sort of recognition from the wider sporting community of the trauma Jewish Australians are currently experiencing.

“Maccabi Australia calls on all sportspeople, roof bodies and grassroots organisations to speak up against terrorism, promote diplomacy and embrace diversity and to condemn all forms of racism, prejudice and hate including antisemitism,” said president Jeff Sher.

“Anyone connected to sport and in particular elite athletes bear a responsibility as role models to set a positive example on and off the field. Right now, silence is not an option.”

National Maccabi movements around the world have launched the Sport Speaks Up campaign, “to pray for peace, tolerance and respect.”

Photo: Bachar Houli

About the author

Ashley Browne

Ashley Browne has been writing about Australian sport for the last 30 years and is currently a senior writer for Crocmedia. He was the co-editor in 2018 of People of the Boot, The Triumphs and Tragedy of Jews and Sport in Australia.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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