Some Fear a Soccer Team’s Racist Fans Hold a Mirror Up to Israel

By JODI RUDOREN  30 Jan 30, 2013

JERUSALEM — The shouting match began long before kickoff, and many of the slogans had little to do with soccer.

“The Temple Mount is in our hands,” chanted the notoriously aggressive fans of the home team, Beitar Jerusalem.

The visitors from Umm al-Fahm, an Arab-Israeli town, had their own provocations. “With blood and fire, we will liberate Palestine,” they called in Hebrew.

The angry, defiant exchanges that punctuated Tuesday night’s unusually tense game here came amid intense protests by Beitar Jerusalem supporters over the team owner’s plans to recruit two Muslim players from Chechnya. Some young men had unfurled a banner at the previous game declaring “Beitar pure forever,” which reminded many here of Nazi Germany’s purging of Jews from athletics in 1933 and prompted statewide discussion about racism on and off the field.

“People in Israel usually try to locate Beitar Jerusalem as some kind of the more extreme fringe; this is a way to overcome the embarrassment,” said Moshe Zimmermann, a historian at Hebrew University who specializes in sports. “The fact is that the Israeli society on the whole is getting more racist, or at least more ethnocentric, and this is an expression.”

Reaction to the purity banner, perhaps the most controversial in a series of Beitar outbursts, was swift. One of the fans who made the sign was arrested and banned from games for the season. Fifty more were barred from Tuesday’s match, along with banners of all kinds, and the team was fined about $13,500, amid concerns that the episode could threaten Israel’s scheduled hosting of a European Under 21 soccer tournament in June.

President Shimon Peres sent the soccer association a sharply worded letter, and Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister who has been one of Beitar’s biggest financial boosters, wrote a much-discussed opinion article in the newspaper Yediot Aharanot declaring he would no longer be seen in the stands.

“The competition has long since stopped being of a sportsmanship nature,” Mr. Olmert wrote. “Either we remove this group of racists from our field and cut it off from the team, or we are all like them.”

Beitar, which was founded in 1936 and is the only one of Israel’s 30 professional soccer teams never to have had a single Arab player, has a long history of ugly fan behavior. Last March, hundreds stormed a mall near the stadium and beat up several Arab workers. A Nigerian Muslim who joined the team in 2004 quit after a year of harassment.

But such conflagrations are not limited to soccer. Last summer, a mob of Jewish teenagers pummeled a Palestinian youth nearly to death in what was widely condemned as an attempted lynching. While last week’s election results were widely seen as slowing Israel’s slide to the right, Yair Lapid, whose centrist party came in a strong second, was criticized for saying afterward that he would not form a coalition with “Zoabis,” a reference to an Arab-Israeli lawmaker.

Nor are the tensions only between Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens and its six million Jews. A left-leaning lawmaker filed a complaint with the elections commission this month asserting that a campaign advertisement depicting a blond Russian woman getting a conversion certificate faxed to her under the wedding canopy — as opposed to going through a substantive religious process as now required — was “racist and presents the immigrant population in a ridiculous light.” Last spring, Israeli lawmakers used racial slurs during protests against the influx of migrant workers from Africa, with one eventually apologizing for calling them “a cancer in our body.”

Adalah, a legal center for Arabs in Israel, counted 20 discriminatory laws passed by the current Parliament, including one restricting residency in certain communities. Nidal Othman, director of the Coalition Against Racism in Israel, said there had been a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in “racist incidents” in the past two years.

“When talking about Beitar, it’s actually showing a mirror for the Israeli society,” said Mr. Othman, a lawyer with the Mossawa Center, which advocates for civil and human rights. “The political leaders and the religious leaders of the community are feeding the society with different racist incitements — against Arabs at all, against Muslims at all and against different groups in Israel.”

Soccer, Israel’s national sport, has long been tinged by conflict because, as Professor Zimmermann put it, “In Israel, you cannot disconnect politics from whatever you do.” The major teams — Beitar, Maccabi and Hapoel — began as outgrowths of political movements and remain psychically linked to various parties. Beitar is Likud, the right-leaning faction headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though in recent years it has also been associated with extremists amid the growth of a virulent fan group known as La Familia.

Abbas Swan, who spent three years on the Israeli national team and about 15 in professional soccer, said playing against Beitar “gave me more energy and more power.”

“They want to destroy all the society that I love, that I come from,” explained Mr. Swan, 37, now a youth coach. “Your emotion now plays, not your body and not your head. You can give 120 percent, not 100 percent.”

At Tuesday’s match, between singing religious songs and hurling vulgar epithets at their opponents, Beitar fans were blunt about their opposition to integrating their beloved team. They added a new chant to their repertoire, attacking the team’s owner, the Russian-Israeli oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, as “son of a whore” because of his plan to put the Chechens on his roster.

“Arabs are impure people,” said Shlomo Buchbut, a 17-year-old student. “We don’t like Muslims.”

Lindy Mizrahi, one of the few women in the young, testosterone-filled stands, said she did not agree with the purity banner but nonetheless wanted only Jews to wear her team’s trademark yellow and black. “Beitar is a group of very Zionist Jews who believes that Jerusalem belongs to the Jews,” she explained. “We are for peace — but not inside Beitar.”

Avi Cohen, 22, who works in a warehouse, pointed to the Umm al-Fahm fans chanting “Allahu akbar,” which reminded him of what Palestinian suicide bombers said before blowing themselves up during the second intifada, or uprising. “They support and they represent all the terrorists,” Mr. Cohen said.

Hundreds of additional police officers deployed for Tuesday’s game removed 25 fans — 20 from Beitar — for racist behavior, and arrested five from Umm al-Fahm, two for attacking officers and three for raising a Palestinian flag.

The 1,000 Arabs at the game were sequestered behind locked gates in one corner, where they banged drums, tooted trumpets and clapped hands overhead.

“We didn’t come to watch the game,” said Mahmoud Jazmawe, 21, a road paver who was with two cousins. Added Ahmed Mhamed, 19: “They’re always cursing the Prophet Muhammad, so we came to answer back.”

Beitar, ranked fourth in the premier league with a record of 8-5-7, dominated its opponent, which plays in the second tier, scoring its first goal within eight minutes and finishing 5-0. Still, said Mohammed Mahamid, 36, a history teacher, “We won big.”

“We came to show them what the culture of soccer is and what playing without racism is,” he explained. “We brought a big crowd, we showed a force and that’s a victory.”


Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.


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