Turning jeers into cheers

Beitar chairman Itzik Kornfein is making progress in his battle to eradicate racism in soccer.

Itzik Kornfein 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kilger)
Itzik Kornfein 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kilger)
Beitar Jerusalem earned the reputation of being Israel’s most racist club long ago. Anybody who attended a Beitar match over recent decades could not have helped but hear the bigoted chants, which for some reason are tolerated only at soccer stadiums.
Racist supporters are far from being just a Beitar problem, with fans throughout the country displaying xenophobia, usually anti-Arab, but also anti- Jewish when an Arab team is involved. However, more than any other club, it is Beitar that has borne the stigma of racism, something Jerusalem chairman Itzik Kornfein is determined to change, not just for the sake of his club but for Israeli soccer as a whole.
In recent seasons, Kornfein has spoken out repeatedly against intolerance in the stands. But it was only last year that he fully understood the immensity and importance of the task he faces.
On March 13, 2010, three Beitar supporters allegedly assaulted two teenage Arab janitors during the halftime break of the team’s 2-0 victory over Ashdod SC. The victims, Muhammad Abu-Rumeila and Udai Abu-Sabah, whose only crime was going about their job at Teddy Stadium, suffered minor wounds, but Kornfein realized that he had to take immediate action or it might not be long before lives would be lost at his stadium.
While the police and the judicial system are the only ones that have the true power to clamp down on such criminals, who are described as fans, Kornfein had no intention of shirking his responsibility.
The 39-year-old chairman tried to pacify the rogue supporters. When that didn’t work, he decided to excommunicate them, which even led to death threats against the former Beitar goalkeeper, who had moved into the club’s front office after retiring in 2007.
However, Kornfein could not cure the club by himself. It wasn’t until late November that he finally got the support he needed when something extraordinary happened at Teddy Stadium.
Three days after their club was sentenced to host a Premier League match in front of empty stands for the second time this season, the largely silent majority of Beitar supporters finally took a firm stand against the loud and often violent racist minority during the team’s 3-2 victory over Hapoel Ramat Gan.
The eastern stand, which seats many of the known troublemakers, was left closed in the match against Ramat Gan as a punishment for the racist insults hurled at Bnei Sakhnin players at Teddy the previous month, resulting in many of the rabble rousers watching the encounter from the northern terrace.
It was there that the racists were confronted by Beitar fans who were no longer willing to see their club’s reputation being damaged.
Peaceful and law-abiding supporters bravely challenged the often violent extremists, showing that they would no longer accept having a racist minority dictate the direction their club was going in.
“Everyone seated in the western stand began to boo when some 300 fans began singing racist songs and cursed Beitar chairman Itzik Kornfein,” said one supporter, who volunteers as an observer for the New Israel Fund’s Kick Racism Out of Israeli Football campaign. “There is a group of three hooligans that conducts all the songs and chants. They are in charge of the eastern stand. They will only stop if they are arrested during a match and charged for racist chanting. Maybe we should send them to an SS Lazio match in Italy and see how they feel when they are abused for being Jewish.”
Despite the progress being made, Beitar’s battle to reinvent itself will not be won in one day.
Kornfein’s crusade suffered a setback last month when the team was deducted one point and fined NIS 60,000 by the Israel Football Association disciplinary court for the racist chants its fans shouted at Hapoel Tel Aviv midfielder Salim Toama during the match between the teams in March.
“We have been punished many times for racist chants, but in the past year we have decided to wage a true war on this phenomenon, acknowledging that these types of chants must be eradicated,” Kornfein said before his team’s hearing two weeks ago. “We feel that we are fighting this battle without any weapons because we are not the ones in charge of enforcing the law. For example, over the past year not even a single fan was charged by the Jerusalem district attorney. We feel like we are alone, and we are getting little support. We need help, and I expect the court to make an exception and not take the wind out of our sails. Beitar has decided to fight this war, and we will not give up. We are seeing a significant change, and we hope the court helps us make further progress.”
Kornfein’s pleas were answered, and the IFA High Court acknowledged the efforts being made by Jerusalem and accepted its appeal. The court gave Beitar its point back but upheld the fine, as well as the two-point deduction suspended sentence until the end of next season.
In the team’s most recent home game two weeks ago, the fans proved that they are capable of cheering for their team without bigotry, bringing back chants from the past not heard at Teddy Stadium for many years in the 2-0 win over Hapoel Acre.
Beitar is still seen as a bastion of racism in Israeli soccer, especially as no Arab player has yet to represent the club. That day will arrive sooner or later, but in the meantime Jerusalem has taken a massive stride forward over the past season in its battle against intolerance. While once it was the model of a club preoccupied with the narrow-mindedness of its fans, today Beitar is showing the way forward in the fight against racism.
Jerusalem may have struggled on the pitch this season, but it has achieved something far more significant, and for that it should be proud.