Rifat Turk is used to being the first.
The beloved former soccer star was both the first Israeli Arab to play on Israel’s national team, and the first Israeli Arab to represent Israel in the Olympics in Montreal in 1976.
But Turk claims that this month’s breakthrough was more thrilling than any of his impressive achievements on the playing field. Turk was named deputy mayor of the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the first Arab citizen to ever hold such a high-ranking post in a primarily Jewish city.
“I’m excited. This is a special day for me. I know that it’s a historic moment,” Turk said. “It is our duty to prove that co-existence in peace and equality is not only a dream,” he told the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council, where he has served as a member since 1998 as a representative of the Meretz Party.
Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai said that he was “proud” to announce Turk’s appointment.
“It is not enough to talk about co-existence; we must also act,” Huldai said. “Turk is a much admired personality among youth, and he has the power to influence them positively.”
Turk’s life is a Cinderella story. The son of a Jaffa fisherman, he dropped out of school in eighth grade. At age 16, he was discovered kicking a soccer ball around the city’s back alleys, and was brought into the world of professional sports. He quickly became a popular star mid-field player for Hapoel Tel Aviv and a member of the Israeli national team. In 1980 he was named soccer player of the year.
His undeniable talent, constant smile, friendly manner and charm won him legions of Jewish fans. Even today, he is arguably the most recognizable and popular Arab citizen in the country.
After retiring as a player in 1987, Turk spent a decade working as a coach and manager for Jewish and Arab teams across the country. At the same time, he used his hero status in Jaffa to work on what he considers a personal crusade: to keep Jaffa youth away from crime and drugs.
According to Turk, 90 percent of his childhood friends are on the street, on drugs or in prison, and he openly worries that too many of Jaffa’s youth are headed in the same direction.
Drawing lessons from his own life, he strongly believes that sports can be an important way to both boost young people’s confidence and a framework to keep them heading in a positive direction. His goal has always been to narrow the socio-economic divide between Tel Aviv?s primarily Jewish population and Jaffa?s Arab residents.
Ever the athlete, he used a timely sports metaphor to describe his crusade in 1998, when he was first elected to the Tel Aviv city council.
“It’s like the World Cup championship. Once there was a huge gap between the quality of the European countries playing and the Asian and African countries. The Third World countries would lose by huge margins of seven or eight to nothing.
‘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.’
Turk, 47, has three children aged 18, 14, and ten
He was brought into politics by his Jewish neighbor in the mixed Ajami section of Jaffa. Roeh, the head of the Meretz faction in Tel Aviv, worked to convince Turk to enter the political arena.
In his new role he plans to ask for authority in the area of sports and to continue to work to promote disadvantaged youth, and to improve education in Jaffa.