Grounds for concern, but not hysteria

Does the and racism exhibited by Beitar Jerusalem’s fans indicate widespread Israeli racism?

racist soccer fans at Jerusalem game 521 (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
racist soccer fans at Jerusalem game 521
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
‘Son of a whore!” the middle-aged man near me screamed at the top of his lungs. I was sitting in the stands of Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem as the players of Bnei Sakhnin, an Arab soccer team and rival to Beitar Jerusalem, stepped onto the field.
The crowd for Sunday evening’s game is made up of four parts: Beitar fans screaming vulgar slogans like that, those bearing posters denouncing racism, Sakhnin fans, and undercover policemen.
One group of fans held a placard protesting against “La Familia,” a small group of the most intense and racist fans, which claimed the extremists would “never take our love away.” The stadium’s western stands, the usual home of the worst offenders, had been closed down.
At various times during the game, however – the first following the torching of Beitar’s Jerusalem office over the weekend, a crime that many think was committed by fans disgruntled over the inclusion of Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev – the team’s two new Muslim players, from Chechnya – the racist chants returned.
The racism exhibited by some Beitar fans is indeed worrisome After a banner was unfurled at a previous game saying that the club will stay forever “pure,” national and civic leaders from the prime minister down joined a chorus of voices denouncing racism.
Long notorious for harboring a vocal segment of anti-Arab fans – and until the signing of the Chechnyan players, the only Israeli soccer team without any Muslim players – Beitar Jerusalem is now under the nation’s microscope. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a self-declared Beitar fan, said that Israel “cannot countenance such racism. The Jewish people, who suffered from boycotts and ostracism, must be a light unto the nations.” MKs are making damning statements, former prime minister and lifelong Beitar fan Ehud Olmert announced that he will no longer attend games, and international media outlets like The New York Times are running reports about the Beitar issue and its implications for Israeli society.
During the Sakhnin game, there was a disturbing vibe in the air, an ugly undertone that was practically tangible. At the same time, it seemed that the team’s management, the police and the fans were making a concerted effort to weed out the troublemakers.
Seventy-five fans, both Arab and Jewish, were removed from the game for comments and catcalls that could be considered racist, the rivalry between the teams providing an excuse for displays of racial hatred. However, due to the police presence or the fans’ self-policing, the game did not descend into a race riot, and passed without the violence that is common at European or South American matches.
Still, the inbred racism that 70 years of exclusion of Muslim players can generate was still out in full force at the Sakhnin game.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post’s Melanie Lidman before the game, one fan said, “We don’t want Arabs, we don’t like them. For 70 years Beitar has had no Arab players, Jerusalem will be pure forever! It’s a fundamental of the team.”
Another Beitar fan said that it was “absolutely terrible there are Muslim players on the team” and that he “hope[d] all Arabs will die.”
THE ISSUE of just how widespread racism against Arabs is in a country where Arabs sit in parliament, are members of the Supreme Court and hold professorships at flagship universities, divides historians and experts.
Some claim it is indicative of a larger trend while others downplay the hate, saying that it is only a small, though undoubtedly significant, group of soccer thugs, the likes of which can be found in any country.
Dr. Moshe Zimmerman of the Hebrew University, a historian with expertise in the areas of anti-Semitism, sports and Nazi Germany, believes that the Beitar fans represent a dark undercurrent of racism in society, similar to the German anti-Semitism of the early 1930s.
Beitar, he says, was originally connected to the forerunners of the Likud party and the Revisionist Zionist movement. According to Zimmerman, most Israeli teams were initially affiliated with political movements.
“So from the start the fans are more nationalistic than other fans in Israel. The structure was political parties had their own football clubs.”
While this has changed, he asserts, the basic political and ethical views associated with the parties initially affiliated with Israeli teams remained.
“Fans of Beitar Jerusalem are [still] more nationalistic than the others. They are more fanatical, they are more radical,” says Zimmerman, who calls their aggression toward Arabs “deep seated.”
“If you are a fan of Beitar Jerusalem you may be a fan of the football club because you are interested in sports or... because you are interested in the inclinations behind the club. So it’s not only a number of fans who are racist, it is the majority among the fans.”
However, Prof. Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University says the vocal posturing by Beitar fans has as much to do with sports hooliganism that’s prevalent throughout the world as it does with racism.
“It is important to note that [Sunday] at the game there were as many fans from Sakhnin arrested as Beitar Jerusalem fans,” says Steinberg, who heads the rightwing organization NGO Monitor.
“That doesn’t excuse it but it does say that there is a context to this. Sports hooliganism, and that’s what it is, exists as a huge problem throughout Europe, in some cases including anti-Semitism. The scale of this type of violence and racism is far greater in the UK and other parts of Europe than in the case of Beitar Jerusalem.”
New Yesh Atid MK and former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy minimizes the number of extremists among Beitar fans.
“This is about 500 to 1,000 people who are destroying the atmosphere,” he says. “These actions have reached an international level – this is not good for Israeli sport, for Beitar Jerusalem or the State of Israel. We need to cut down racism at the roots.”