Yalla! Beitar Jerusalem on display

The history of Israel’s controversial ‘nation’s team’ explored in new exhibit.

A JERSEY SIGNED by Beitar Jerusalem players. (photo credit: RANA ABU-FRAIHA)
A JERSEY SIGNED by Beitar Jerusalem players.
(photo credit: RANA ABU-FRAIHA)
Soccer in many parts of the world is way more than a sport. The characteristics of the clubs become entwined with the identities of the cities they represent, holding social and political positions that normally reflect the community and their fan bases.
It’s no different in Israel – and this is no better exemplified than in its capital, Jerusalem. Beitar Jerusalem – one of Israel’s most illustrious and notorious clubs – is the subject of a new exhibit – Yalla! Beitar Jerusalem: The Exhibit – at the Beit Meirov Gallery in Holon.
Named after the club’s slogan, the exhibit highlights the cultural history of the team. While the it is meant to paint Beitar in a positive light, there is no ignoring the controversial side of the team – the stringent political views of some of its fans as well as some club policies, which have labeled Beitar as racist and anti-Arab.
Curator Rafi Vazana is well aware of that image and says that the exhibit relates to the controversies with nuance and depth.
“The goal of the exhibit is to turn the spotlight on significant historical processes and events that are based on values and principles that the younger generation should be taught or reminded of, as well as old-timers,” said Vazana. “The guiding principles in planning the exhibit are a positive spirit and the desire to raise deep questions, which are sometimes swallowed up in the age of social media – which creates noisy, populist side effects that are sometimes extremist and violent.”
Items displayed at the exhibit include team jerseys, rare photographs of emotional and significant moments on and off the field, documents, trophies, symbols, popular figures from different periods, players’ personal memorabilia, books and game-day pamphlets displaying historic achievements, documentary footage and much more – all illustrating the fabled history of “the nation’s team.”
BEITAR JERUSALEM, founded in 1936, shares a storied past, engraved into the political and historical landscape of the State of Israel, with a history deeply rooted into the pre-state era. The team was composed of many young players belonging to the underground Irgun and Lehi organizations, connecting physically to military organizations and ideologically to nationalistic views.
The team used sporting achievements as political victories against external rivals such as British Mandate soldiers, as well as against internal rivals such as non-Jewish teams and clubs holding leftist views.
Beitar’s political viewpoint against the British Mandate landed the entire team in exile at a detention camp in Africa, until their reinstatement in 1947 as a member of the Sports Association of the Land of Israel.
The two decades following the establishment of the State of Israel saw the strengthening of the connection between football as a sport and its role in shaping society, and Beitar’s beginnings were focused around representing underprivileged populations – especially immigrants from North Africa, dubbed ‘the mizrachim.’
The team believed that the support of their fan base would allow them to transcend political platforms and invoke social change. Beitar’s fortunes changed in 1977 – not only by winning their first State Cup, but with the dramatic upheaval of the Israeli government in 1977, which thrust former Beitar Youth Movement member Menachem Begin into the prime minister’s office and his Likud party into power.
Begin was a firm believer in the Revisionist Zionist Movement ideology developed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky; his political set of ideals shared by the founders of Beitar in 1936 have continued to guide the club until today.
The exhibit focuses on popular sports and political figures, matches, events, poetry, songs and clothing – all surrounding the long, storied history of the club that propelled soccer players into national celebrities, songs into anthems and chants into political slogans.
“Beitar Jerusalem [became] a cultural icon in Israeli society and a microcosm of social and political processes that are intertwined and expressed on and off the field,” said Vazana. “Many songs have been written for the team and performed by popular singers, in addition to documentary films, academic articles, biographies, comedy sketches and biting satire. All of these strengthen the position of the team and its fans and players as 'the nation’s team' – or 'the country’s team' as its fans call it.”
Throughout their 83 years of existence, Beitar has earned six premier championships, seven Israeli Cups and two Israeli Supercups – creating sort of a dynasty in the process. Many politicians use Beitar games and appearances as a political launching point for their careers or campaigns, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister and mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert, President Reuven Rivlin and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.
While the exhibit is meant to paint Beitar in a positive light, there is no ignoring the controversial side of the team and the rabid portion of its fan base. The team and their 500,000-million strong followers are lumped together with the national camp. The team is the only Israeli Premier Club to never hire an Arab player, and during the 2012-2013 season, the club dealt with a racist outrage from a portion of its fan base after the hiring of two Muslim Chechnyan players.
The outbursts highlighted the ugly side of a portion of the fan base – boycotting games, denouncing once revered players as well as the team, holding and chanting slogans such as “Beitar forever pure, without Arabs.” The very fact that the players were not even Arabs but rather Muslims invoked the outrage amongst the fans – creating a racist image that has plagued the team in recent years.
The participation in these outlandish activities against their own team, players and communities stemmed from the Zionist political views of a small controlling group of fans, known as “La Familia” – almost bringing the once-great team into relegation.
In 2013, most of the team’s historic memorabilia were housed in a small museum near the Beitar practice facility. Vandals burnt the structure to the ground, which is documented in the exhibit by photographer Judith Schreiber.
THE CLUB has striven to rehabilitate its image over the last six years.
“You don’t just become a Beitar fan, you are born one,” sports commentator Nadav Shtrauchler said, adding that he recently wrote a column welcoming his newborn son where he wrote, “[My son] can be whatever he wants in life, follow whatever dreams he so chooses, but there is one thing that is already chosen for him – and that is he will be a Beitar fan.”
Shtrauchler explained how new ownership has been focused on spreading messages to their fan base about tolerance, condemning any type of racist chanting from the stands.
He further explained that the small group of fans chanting racist slogans and inciting hate within the stands are an embarrassment to the hundreds of thousands of those who disagree with these views. He pointed out that the team’s historic achievements are overlooked due to the actions of a few bad apples.
Shtrauchler, who has been a fan of Beitar his entire life, is happy with the direction the team is moving in and was even more excited to be invited by team management to be able to be a part of its positive social change – attempting to bring Beitar back to its formerly revered glory.
The 2019 season was the first year that the team celebrated the disappearance of organized racial chants originating from the stands – almost mirroring political and social change throughout the country and made evident by the most recent 2019 Israeli elections – leaving behind past extremist nationalistic views for those of inclusiveness.
The club’s new slogan is taken directly from the Torah: “Love one as you love yourself,” which is now printed on all team scarves and merchandise being disseminated by Beitar.
“As a team that has made football a religion and its fans an army of believers, it is interesting to examine how football, with its variety of roles, becomes part of socially and culturally shaping the community and the state, and how Beitar Jerusalem is coping with the new challenges that the current time poses,” Vazana concluded.
If Beitar’s future is up for debate, their past is set in stone. Throughout the exhibit, the club’s humble beginnings and its path to becoming a national powerhouse and symbol is generously presented, including the cultural, social and political achievements of the times. The complexities of the social landscape – and the actions of the club and what role it played in shaping the State of Israel – are all up for interpretation. And all of it is highlighted in the Yalla! Beitar Jerusalem exhibit at Holon’s Beit Meirov Gallery.
The exhibit will take place from September 26 to December 31, 2019 at the Beit Meirov Gallery in Holon.