Being Beitar: Holon’s “Yalla! Beitar” exhibit

Holon’s “Yalla! Beitar” exhibit explores and celebrates the singular history of a fiercely beloved iconic team.

Being Beitar (photo credit: Courtesy)
Being Beitar
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Beitar Jerusalem is having a mediocre season so far this year. For many years, however, its professional standing hasn’t been the Israeli soccer team’s most important aspect. In order to understand the team’s transformation, you have to look at the entire process and the trials and tribulations it went through in an effort to survive all these years. How can we conceptualize what unites this team whose steadfast fans include prime ministers, singers, cultural figures and citizens from across a wide spectrum of society? To do this, we must analyze events from the last two decades.
It all began when new soccer club owner Gad Zeevi came up with the idea to serve fans sushi instead of sunflower seeds. Then Arkadi Gaydamak invested a significant amount of money in the club, but then dismantled it as soon as he was not elected mayor of Jerusalem. Next was Eli Tabib, who brought the group close to a real achievement, but who ended up quarreling with the crowd. And finally, the short-lived, frantic and tragic episode with Guma Aguiar.
Moreover, it’s important to understand the influence Beitar Jerusalem has had on Israeli society. Just recently, the soccer club opened up new branches of its soccer school outside of Jerusalem: one in the Gaza-envelope area and another in Lachish. In upcoming months, the club will begin a series of lectures in schools that are aimed at educating Israelis about the beautiful communal effects of playing soccer and being a member of the soccer club.
Slowly, the soccer team, under the leadership of current owner Moshe Hogeg, is working to improve the quality of its fans’ experience at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium. Fans were transported to the stadium for the season’s first game against Hapoel Beersheba in shuttles organized by the home team. In addition, fans were treated to extra food stations and Yehuda Keisar’s rendition of “Hatikvah.”
Hogeg decided to transform Beitar Jerusalem into a positive and influential entity in Israel. His goal is to return the club to its roots, to its pure love of the sport, while at the same time fighting to oust some of the team’s negative characteristics, such as racist epithets hurled from the bleachers during the games. “From today on,” declares Hogeg, “religion, gender and race will not be factors when choosing which players will play for Beitar Jerusalem.”
It’s no secret that Beitar Jerusalem has its own unique language and colors (yellow and black). Many myths and legends have been spun about this soccer team over the years, and many business arrangements have been recorded on napkins in cafés.
Last month, an art show titled Yala Beitar! opened at the Beit Meirov HaMishkan Gallery in Holon, part of an exhibition featuring Israel’s cultural heroes and dedicated to the history of the soccer club, its roots, symbols, prominent figures and ideology.
“As a team that took the game of soccer and turned it into a religious movement, and transformed its fans into loyal believers,” explains gallery curator Rafi Vazana, “it’s interesting to explore how soccer became a part of the tapestry of a country and of society, and how Beitar is handling all these new challenges. I’m not personally a soccer fan, which I think made my exploration of the subject much more objective and fresh. It was absolutely fascinating to discover how its fans have served as such an integral part of Beitar Jerusalem since its inception.”
“THE ROLE they play is very significant. On the one hand,” continues Vazana, “they are incredibly supportive of the team and sport. On the other hand, they’ve turned the sport into a sort of religion in which the fans believe with all their hearts and souls. They’re rooting for the underdog team. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘Hey, look at us, we may be from the poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem, but by becoming part of this team, we are turning into an integral part of society.’ And that was the point of this exhibition: to visually show the connection with Israeli society through icons.
“The reason we chose to focus on Beitar Jerusalem” explains Vazana, “is its great influence on what happens outside of the playing field. We can see this plainly from events that have taken place over the last decade, with social media, but actually it began long before that. And we’re not just talking about local supporters. In fact, most Beitar Jerusalem supporters live outside of Jerusalem. The group has morphed into a microcosm of Israeli society.”
Beitar Jerusalem was established in the 1930s, and comprised young players who were members of the Irgun and Stern Group pre-state clandestine paramilitary organizations. From the outset, the ideological affinity for Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement served as a common denominator between underground nationalistic activity and participation in the competitive sports team. This was reflected in the political nature of the games played against opposing teams that were affiliated with the Mapai Party, as well as with the British soldiers.
In 1944, following subversive activity against the British that was carried out by the group’s founder, David Horn, members of the group were deported to a detention camp in Africa, where they founded a Beitar group in Eritrea. In 1947, Beitar was officially registered with the Israel Sports Association.
In the two decades after the founding of the state, the Beitar Jerusalem Sports Club represented people who were affiliated with the weaker communities in Israel, namely those who’d come from Muslim countries, and those who believed success in the sports arena would lead to change in the socio-political arena as well.
“The protest on the playing field was an integral part of the revolutionary change in political leadership in 1977, which took place just one year after Beitar’s first historic win of the National Cup,” explains Vazana. “The way Israeli society viewed the soccer club changed greatly that year. Beitar had become one of the most popular groups, and its players displayed excellent skill and talent on the field. Beitar began attracting a much larger number of supporters.”
“Israelis who publicly identified with Beitar and were considered advocates of [Menachem] Begin’s Herut Party, were discriminated against and labelled as ‘Beitarim,’” says Prof. Amir Ben-Porat, a sociologist and specialist on the connection between soccer and nationalism. “They would always be the last ones on line at the unemployment agency or to get apartment subsidies. They would voice their feelings of discrimination at the YMCA stadium, and began protesting the status quo.
“They began rising up against the Histadrut labor federation, which at the time had tremendous influence on the distribution of various services, including job distribution and the overall economy of Jerusalem. The derogatory calls in opposition to Hapoel, were in essence against the Mapai and Histadrut domination. The physically violent incidents that erupted between these two groups were a radicalized expression of the political and cultural protests.”
The exhibition features posters from the 1940s and ‘50s that include early Beitar symbols and the menorah, as well as photographs of prominent figures, such as former Beitar chairman Reuven Rivlin and fans including Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Avigdor Liberman and other politicians who were actively involved with Beitar. “It’s absolutely incredible to see all these old pictures,” adds Vazana. “Even Benjamin Netanyahu got involved during big moments, and was recorded shouting out at Safra Square, ‘Let’s go Beitar!’”
Being a part of this powerful force provided fans with the motivation to join others at the field on Nevi’im Street, at the YMCA, and later in Bayit Vegan and finally, Teddy Stadium. Life in Israel has always been lived in the extreme. The historical research for the exhibition was carried out with Ofer Yahalomi, a veteran collector and fan, and the entire team got involved, including many former players and legendary chairmen Avraham Levy and Moshe Dadash.
You can catch the Yalla! Beitar Jerusalem exhibit at Holon’s Beit Meirov Gallery until December 31.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.