Middle East

People

Rifat Turk: Scoring for Arab Israelis

A beloved soccer star who has become the first Arab Israeli to serve as a deputy mayor in his country, 47-year-old Rifat Turk has had a life of surprising transformations.

If anyone had told the 16-year-old boy kicking a soccer ball around Jaffa’s back alleys that he would become a national sports star and the first Arab Israeli to represent his country in the Olympic Games, Turk probably would have laughed in his face.

The son of a Jaffa fisherman, Turk had dropped out of school in eighth grade. Like many of his friends, he spent his days hanging around the port of Jaffa, playing soccer along its ancient streets. Unlike many teenagers in neighboring Tel Aviv, these boys did not have rosy futures. Nobody seemed to care much if they cut school or ended up in juvenile detention.

The appearance of a soccer scout changed all of that for Turk. He was recruited to play for Tel Aviv’s Hapoel team and became a star midfield player who soon advanced to Israel’s national team. There, his wide smile and engaging personality won him legions of fans, both Jewish and Arab. He represented Israel in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and in 1980 was named Israel’s soccer player of the year.

In 1987, Turk retired from the soccer field. He spent the next decade coaching and managing Jewish and Arab teams across Israel while also working on a cause close to his heart: keeping Jaffa youth away from crime and drugs.

It was this work that kick-started his career in politics. Turk says that 90 percent of his childhood friends are on the street, on drugs, or in prison, and that many of Jaffa’s youth are headed for the same fate. In an effort to use his voice on their behalf, he ran for a slot on Tel Aviv’s city council under the Meretz party banner in 1998. He won and, after five years on the council, was elected to replace deputy mayor Michal Roeh in March 2003. He is the first Arab Israeli to hold such a high-ranking post in local government.

As deputy mayor, Turk hopes that he will be able to make a real difference in Jaffa, where poverty and illiteracy hold many citizens back.

To illustrate his goals, he uses a sports metaphor: Once, he says, Third World teams routinely lost by wide margins to the more advantaged European teams in soccer’s World Cup. “Now, over the years, they have slowly learned what is going on, and the gaps have gotten smaller and smaller. I want to see the gaps between Tel Aviv and Jaffa narrow in the same way.”