A surreal week: Beitar, Abu Dhabi, Iran and aliens

With apologies to any space aliens who might be reading this, some close encounters are definitely better than others.

SHEIKH HAMAD Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and Beitar Jerusalem FC co-owner Moshe Hogeg pose for a photo in Dubai on December 7. (photo credit: BEITAR JERUSALEM/REUTERS)
SHEIKH HAMAD Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and Beitar Jerusalem FC co-owner Moshe Hogeg pose for a photo in Dubai on December 7.
I’m no stranger to strange news stories, but this week proved that even 2020 – the year where the word “surreal” hardly left my lips and mind – could still throw some surprises. These ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Early in the week, a KAN radio news report noted that there were 10 flights daily between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, just three months after the Abraham Accords normalizing relations were signed. Given that it’s a 3½-hour flight, previously inaccessible to Israelis, and there’s no need for quarantine at either end, I understand the attraction. It does, however, show that while many people are suffering from devastating financial loss amid the anti-coronavirus regulations, there are still those who have money to spend – and are willing to spend it for a chance to see something new and relax as much as possible during a global pandemic.
One of my favorite stories this week comes against the backdrop of the air shuttle between Israel and Dubai. A group of young men from the Arab-Israeli town of Kfar Kassem dressed up in the traditional white robes and headdress of Emiratis and traveled to Tel Aviv. There they posed for photos with locals, who were excited to be meeting the exotic-looking tourists. Blogger Yaser WaKid tweeted: “Funny! The same Arab is found everywhere in the country and is met on a daily basis.” The encounters, somewhere between a prank and a social experiment, shed light on the absurdity of the situation of the “accidental tourists.”
Another incident this week required far more courage than dressing up as Emiratis in the heart of Tel Aviv. Social media on Monday was abuzz with videos and pictures of an Israeli flag and banner reading “Thank you Mossad” hanging on a bridge in Tehran. The message apparently referred to the targeted killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, widely attributed to Israel. Since displaying the Israeli flag – let alone thanking the Mossad – is illegal in Iran, whoever hung the banner above a busy road was taking a tremendous risk to show that there is still a brave resistance to the ayatollahs’ regime. One day, inshallah, this too could lead to peace.
One of the strangest stories of the week was literally out of this world. It was a story born in outer space that took cyberspace by a storm. In an interview with Yediot Aharonot, which went viral after The Jerusalem Post picked up on it, Haim Eshed, former head of the Defense Ministry’s space directorate, said that Israel and the US have both been dealing with a “Galactic Federation” for years, but the space aliens asked not to disclose their presence since they felt humanity needed to “evolve and reach a stage where we will... understand what space and spaceships are.”
Eshed, 87, served as the head of the country’s space security program for nearly 30 years and is a three-time recipient of the Israel Security Award. It’s doubtful he’s ever had so much publicity before, and unlike the aliens, he apparently welcomed it. You can read more (in Hebrew) in his book: The Universe Beyond the Horizon – conversations with Professor Haim Eshed.
As an aside, conspiracy theorists might be interested in knowing that SpaceIL this week announced a follow-up project to the Beresheet space probe that crash landed on the moon last year.
Personally, I think the aliens might be making excuses: In their place, I would also avoid coming down to Earth amid the turbulence and pestilence of 2020 of all years.
The warmest welcome of the week was extended to something that arrived in freezing conditions. The arrival of crates of Pfizer’s anti-COVID vaccines, requiring storage in -70ºC temperatures, was greeted with the sort of fanfare usually reserved for state occasions. As one radio broadcaster put it, you would have thought that these vials were POWs or hostages returning home or a very special flight of new immigrants. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among those on the tarmac at the airport to witness the forklift trucks unloading the first containers.
Netanyahu probably welcomed the chance for some positive coverage the day after Gideon Sa’ar announced he was leaving Likud and setting up another party, whose tentative name is “The New Hope.” Every Israeli election offers a “new hope” party of some kind, that siphons off votes from the older parties but doesn’t save the country from its chaotic political situation.
DESPITE THE serious competition, my vote for the least likely story of the week goes to the extraordinary purchase of 50% of Beitar Jerusalem FC by an Arabian sheikh. On the sidelines of the peace agreement, UAE’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan signed a deal with Beitar’s owner Moshe Hogeg, pledging to invest NIS 300 million in the team over the next decade.
Obviously a good sport, Nahyan said that this represented “the fruits of peace and brotherhood between the nations.”
The sheikh’s son, Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa, who will control the club from the UAE, said: “We want to set an example to both nations that Jews and Muslims can work together.” He has a sporting chance, but the field is not clear. For many years, Beitar has sadly been known mainly for the outright racist behavior of the small but extremist La Familia fan club. La Familia, whose infamous actions include literally burning down the clubhouse when upset and walking out of the stadium when a Muslim Russian-Chechan player scored a goal, have threatened to continue their protests.
Those who enjoy a good game in sporting spirit got a kick out of the news that the team that for years refused to have Arab players will now be partly owned by an Arab sheikh. La Familia members must have felt like they were kicked in the gut.
Beitar Jerusalem’s chant “Yalla, Beitar!” might now revert from being a battle cry. Storeholders and vendors in Mahaneh Yehuda market, a Beitar stronghold, were surprisingly supportive of the sheikh’s purchase – partly, of course, because the club has been cash-strapped in recent years, but also as a chance to improve their own image: an important goal in both senses of the word.
Also this week, Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan signed a deal with a Dubai-based company to export wine, olive oil and honey produced in the Jewish communities to the UAE. Israeli Medjool dates have also found a market in the Gulf – something akin to selling ice to Eskimos. Deals such of these are more likely to create peace on the ground than the call by so-called “Progressives” to boycott “produce of the settlements.”
All this is good news, but, without wanting to be a party pooper, I urge not getting carried away. I remember talk of ties with Oman when I visited in the mid-1990s, and relations with Jordan and Egypt, which started out warm are now not much above the temperature of the average anti-COVID vaccination container. Turkey and even Iran were once trusted partners. And China, of course, enjoyed a spending spree which left it with control of many valuable national assets and infrastructure that goes way beyond buying a soccer club.
The most miraculous story of the week is also the oldest – the Hanukkah holiday which started Thursday night. Commemorating an event in the second century BCE, long before the Maccabees and Beitar would become associated with sports clubs, Hanukkah celebrates the Hasmonean victory over the Syrian-Greek Seleucids; the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem; and the miracle of the one cruse of untainted oil lasting eight days to keep the menorah in the Temple alight. Who doesn’t feel the need for some miracles and celebrations this dark winter in particular?
I love this kind of meeting with history. With apologies to any space aliens who might be reading this, some close encounters are definitely better than others.
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