Jerusalem supporters from the La Familia fan group hold up a match against Charleroi in Belgium.
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
On a bridge overlooking the Kaliska train station in Lodz, Poland, just two months ago, several dozen local soccer fans burned Jews in effigy. They hung a banner from the bridge reading, “Today [August 19] the Jews got a name. Let them burn.”
According to the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, the incident was apparently spurred by a win by the LKS Lodz team, which is still associated by many Poles with its numerous Jewish supporters before the Holocaust.
While such a manifestation of antisemitism in Poland might not be surprising, today’s growing spread of hatred toward Jews and the Jewish state has infected the world of sport across the globe.
Right-wing extremism has been on the rise for some time across Europe, finding expression most blatantly at soccer stadiums. In Italy, for example, fans regularly chant racist slogans and raise arms in a Fascist salute. In February, the referee had to halt a match in Rome when fans would not stop taunting a black player with racist curses.
From 2000 to 2014, Milan’s Observatory on Antisemitism at the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center recorded some 630 soccer-related incidents, compared with 56 in from 1989 to 2000. In 2014, Hellas Verona supporters reportedly celebrated their championship by forming a swastika with their cars.
If “Racism in soccer is just a mirror of racism in society,” as journalist Luca Pisapia wrote in the Rome daily Il Fatto
, modern society’s mirror image is cracked. “There is a tendency to trivialize these kinds of incidents,” Ugo Maria Tassinari, an expert on extremism and author of the book Fascisteria
, said in an interview earlier this year with Haaretz
“Sometimes racism is punished, sometimes it is not.”
Tassinari reported that German soccer matches have featured “an increase in antisemitic slogans, chants that refer to the Holocaust and the use of Nazi symbols around stadiums,” due to the “infiltration of right-wing extremist groups.”
Antisemitic incidents pervade all sports, sometimes in more subtle ways. In the Rio Olympics, judo fans booed Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby when he refused to shake hands with Israeli opponent Or Sasson, who won the match. El Shehaby was eventually sent home in disgrace, but the episode in Rio de Janeiro was not an Olympic first.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili disqualified himself to fight the Israeli Ehud Vaks, which earned him public praise from the Tehran regime.
All sport is infected by the plague. Ben Cohen of JNS.org reported that, in 2009, the United Arab Emirates denied Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe’er an entry visa, which forced her to withdraw from that year’s tennis tournament in Dubai.
“At an international swimming competition in Dubai and Qatar in 2013,” he wrote, “Israeli competitors were excluded from broadcasts and endured protests from officials, who refused to say the word ‘Israel.’ When Amit Ivry won the silver medal in the 100m Individual Medley, the Israeli flag was blanked off in broadcasts of the award ceremony.”
Closer to home, the Palestinian Authority has escalated its support of the worldwide BDS campaign against Israel to demand that FIFA, the world soccer body, boycott six teams based in Jewish communities in the West Bank. It has expectedly turned to the United Nations, which – surprise – has indicated it supports the move to recognize only Israeli clubs existing within the 1949 armistice lines.
While FIFA ponders its move, it should consider that the pursuit of social justice on the playing field includes more than Israel, for example Iran’s violation of gender discrimination by banning women from even attending matches.
Racism in sport does not stop at the Green Line, however.
It is a source of shame that the capital’s most well-known club, Beitar Jerusalem, is notorious for its demonstrative hatred of Arabs. Many Beitar fans, epitomized by the often violent “La Familia” group, pride themselves on being the only team in the Israel Premier League that has never signed an Arab player. The club has often been penalized for the extremist behavior of its fans both inside and beyond Teddy Stadium.
While it is long past time for antisemitism to be excluded from sport, if racism in sport is indeed a mirror of racism in society, then no society is immune.