Blowing the whistle on Beitar

Is the hooligan element among the Beitar fans a reflection of a deeper malaise of racism and nationalism in Israeli society or is it just good old fashioned fan violence?

July 23, 2015 22:21
3 minute read.
Fans of Beitar Jerusalem shout slogans during a match against Bnei Sakhnin

Fans of Beitar Jerusalem shout slogans during a match against Bnei Sakhnin as part of the Israeli Premier League. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Ten measures of beauty descended to the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem
– Talmud, Kiddushin 49b.

Notwithstanding that Talmudic dictum, something ugly has taken root in the capital.

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Last week, fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club rioted at a match against Belgium’s Sporting Charleroi: They threw flares onto the pitch, hit the home team’s goalkeeper in the head with an object thrown from the stands and were involved in skirmishes prior to the game, which Beitar went on to lose 5-1.

Beitar awaits punishment from Europe’s soccer authorities, and the Belgian club too faces censure after its fans made anti-Semitic chants and fascist salutes. But this was no isolated incident in response to anti-Semitic provocation. It is just the latest in a string of violent incidents over the years involving the Jerusalem club’s hardcore fan group. Racist chants are commonplace at games, fans wave banners proclaiming “Beitar pure forever” and the team has never fielded an Arab player.

Sport Minister Miri Regev was quick to censure the behavior of the Beitar fans in Belgium, but she was herself photographed a couple of years ago with a pair of the team’s supporters, one sporting the emblem of the outlawed Kahane Chai organization and another wearing a shirt with the words “Jews, come and inherit the Land.”

Beitar, which has its roots in Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement, is supported by many politicians on the Right, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also quick to issue a condemnation after the latest outrage.

So is the situation a microcosm of a wider picture, is the hooligan element among the Beitar fans a reflection of a deeper malaise of racism and nationalism in Israeli society or is it just good old fashioned fan violence? I spoke to a historian and a sociologist to try to understand the phenomenon and of course came away with contradictory insights.

Historian Moshe Zimmermann of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University sees a direct link between politics, nationalism and the behavior of the Beitar fans.

“The legitimization given by some politicians and parts of society to ethnocentrism and racism takes the lid off the pan and lets violence erupt,” says Zimmermann.

“As soon as you have a prime minister and other politicians who identify with the club, the results are only too soon in coming,” he adds. “If people are educated that nationalism is justified, that ethnic nationalism is justified, that racist nationalism is justified, then this is what happens.”

University of Haifa sociologist Oz Almog, however, dismisses any political link out of hand.

“These people have no agenda, they are just a ragtag of idiots with no political doctrine,” he says.

Almog sees three factors behind the violent behavior of Beitar’s fans: the terrorist attacks that have plagued the capital since the Oslo process; the club’s financial instability and the propensity of the tabloid media to give extensive coverage to antisocial behavior.

“There is lot of anger, among all Israelis, against radical Islam, which has taken a terrible toll, and don’t forget that Jerusalem is a city that has paid the highest price with terrorist attack after terrorist attack,” says Almog.

Taking care to note that none of this justifies violence, physical or verbal, Almog asks: “What do you do when you are a victim? People who are hot-headed, who have no restraint, who live in a city that is highly charged, become violent.”

Regardless of whether the violence of the Beitar fans is the result of a rage fueled “not by ideology, but by anger,” as Almog would have it, or whether it is the product of “an ideology that is ethnocentric, nationalistic and racist,” as Zimmermann puts it, it is time for Israel’s sporting and law enforcement authorities to adopt a policy of zero tolerance toward the club’s recalcitrant fans.

Above all, it is time for the politicians to do more than pay lip service and condemn violence only when it erupts. It is time for them to say, ceaselessly and unequivocally, that they will not tolerate violence, prejudice and racism and that they will not tolerate the exclusion of the Arab minority.

In Eruvin 19a, the Talmud notes: “There are three gates to Gehenna [hell] – one of them is in Jerusalem.”

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