Soccer team loses sponsor for displaying anti-Israel banners, Palestinian flags at games

Dale Vince, owner of Forest Green Rovers compared Israeli “occupation” to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

By Shiryn Ghermezian, The Algemeiner

The vegan dog food company Hownd announced this week that it was ending its three-year sponsorship deal with the English soccer club Forest Green Rovers after the team raised Palestinian flags and displayed anti-Israel banners at its matches.

In April, the Jewish owner of Hownd, Mark Hirschel, attended a Forest Green Rovers home match with his two sons, ages 20 and 17, at New Lawn Stadium in Gloucestershire when the Palestinian flag was on display. Hownd was sponsoring the game as part of an annual commitment that is in the company’s three-year sponsorship deal with the soccer team, which was signed in August 2021.

“We were wined and dined before the game and were in the club’s function room with [club owner] Dale [Vince] and about 100 other VIP guests. Suddenly, my youngest son spotted a Palestinian flag flying high above one of the stands and told me,” Hirschel told the London-based Jewish Chronicle. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was shocked and very surprised.”

He added, “In hindsight, I should have taken it up with Dale immediately, grabbed the boys and walked out, but at the time I didn’t want to act in haste. I watched the game, just wanting it to be over so I could leave the ground … When I got home, I spoke to my business partner, who is also Jewish, and we agreed to write a formal letter to Dale asking him for an explanation.”

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Vince explained the decision to raise the Palestinian flag in a Twitter post on April 18. He wrote, “We flew this flag at Rovers’ game today. In solidarity with Palestine. The conflict there has all the same ingredients as the one in Ukraine — invasion, occupation, murder of civilians, destruction of homes and hospitals — and sieges.”

“Palestine has been under siege by Israel – by air, land and sea, for decades,” he additionally claimed. “The US allows this, pumps billions into Israel to support it’s [sic] economy and military and uses its veto to block any meaningful action by the UN. What’s happening there is a disgrace to nations that collectively self identify as the ‘West’. It stands in stark contradiction to ‘our’ claims to moral superiority, civilization and democratic values.”

Vince has repeatedly flown a Palestinian flag at the New Lawn Stadium, where Rovers, who compete in England’s League One, play their home games.

Then in May, Vince invited Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, to Rovers home match at the New Lawn Stadium for an interview on the field. During their chat Vince expressed his solidarity with Palestinians and Zomlot thanked Vince for raising the Palestinian flag at the team’s game. Zomlot also claimed that “the field of sports in Palestine is suffering under the Israeli military occupation,” and invited Vince and the entire FGR team to visit “Palestine to have a friendly game in the occupied city of Jerusalem.” Behind the two men were digital advertisements that read, “End the invasion and occupation of Palestine.”

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UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) argued in a letter to Forest Green Rovers and the Football Association’s CEO Mark Bullingham in May that flying the Palestinian flag and using anti-Israel advertising boards is a breach of the club’s charter and FA’s equality policy that prohibits discrimination based on nationality.

Vince responded to UKLFI in his own letter in July. He told the pro-Israel group, “Criticism of the state of Israel does not amount to racism in any form or to any degree. It is simply criticism of the state of Israel … Your claim that Israel gives equal rights to all people is clearly nonsense. It’s not for nothing that the situation there is increasingly compared to apartheid. I regard your letter as devoid of any proper argument or merit and as a simple attempt to intimidate — and such is often the way when people speak out in support of Palestine.”

An FA spokesperson said the association has “reviewed” the anti-Israel advertisings from May and has determined that they are not in breach of its regulations, The Jewish Chronicle noted.

The fruit drinks giant Innocent, owned by Coca-Cola, also ended its sponsorship with the soccer club in May, just weeks after the match that Hirschel attended with his sons. However, a spokesperson for Innocent told The Jewish Chronicle that the move was “independent of political stances.” The spokesperson said: “The decision had already been made to not renew Innocent’s sponsorship.”