New Zealand Soccer Team Bans National Flags After Israeli Player Celebrates Goal With Shema Prayer, Israeli Flag
Israeli soccer player Tomer Hemed stirred controversy on Sunday when he celebrated a goal during a game by stopping midfield to pray for peace in Israel.
After scoring a goal for New Zealand’s soccer team Wellington Phoenix in a match against Melbourne City, Hemed pulled out a kippah from inside his jersey, put it on his head and said the Hebrew shema prayer for Israel. The 34-year-old shared a clip of the moment on Instagram and wrote in the caption “My heart is with you. Praying for PEACE!” alongside an emoji of the Israeli flag. At the match, which ended in a 2-2 draw, he was also photographed clutching an Israeli flag and saying shema again with the flag draped around his head.
In separate Instagram posts he wrote, “Physically far [from Israel] but my heart is there with you. Praying for quieter days.” He dedicated Sunday’s match to Israel and said, “My heart is with you. May the peace return soon amen.”
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In response, Wellington Phoenix has banned fans from bringing national flags to their two upcoming home matches in New Zealand on May 22 and May 30. Only New Zealand and Australian national flags will be permitted and the ban is being imposed “out of respect for all nationalities currently caught up in the conflict” in the Middle East, the club said in a statement on Thursday.
Wellington Phoenix defended Hemed’s actions but said it must be “sensitive” to all sides involved in the Middle East conflict. The team’s general manager David Dome said, “We respect people’s rights for their expressions but at the same time we have to be very sensitive to what is going on in the Middle East and the human tragedy that is happening there.”
“We’ve already spoken to Tomer about that,” Dome added. “I know for a fact that when he does that celebration he’s praying for peace. He doesn’t see it as an insensitive celebration at all. He’s proud of his country and as an Israeli abroad he’s trying to express solidarity with his country, but I also think we have to look at the flip side of it as well and there’s a very real human tragedy that’s going on in that part of the world and we have to be sensitive to both sides. In a secular society like New Zealand we have to be seen doing the right thing and have to do the right thing.”
Hemed was issued a yellow card by the referee following his celebration on the field Sunday. Yellow are cards given to players who cover their face or head with a mask or other covering, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.