Chants urging “Death to Arabs” and fans yelling “Death to Muslims” are only the peak of the racist volcano at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, home to the Beitar soccer team, one of the most political teams in the Israeli sporting scene.
On the night before Israel’s national elections last week, two outgoing legislators from the extreme right — Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad — attended Beitar’s game against Hapoel Tel Aviv in a last-minute attempt to gain support from those named by American sporting network ESPN as “the most dangerous fans” in Israeli soccer.
Beitar’s history is one of relative success in the sporting world. The team has won six championships and seven state cups, and since the 1970s it has been an almost-permanent fixture in the top part of the league’s standings.
Like many European sporting teams, the Jerusalem soccer club was established with a clear political affiliation — to Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Beitar movement. Historically, many of Israel’s right-leaning Likud party leaders were fans of the team, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud-Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister and ex-Likud member, was known to have a season ticket for the team’s home games.
A sign reading “Beitar forever pure” was held aloft by fans of Jerusalem’s largest soccer club on Saturday — the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day — as they protested the owner’s weekend decision to sign two Muslim players.
Stirring an outcry from politicians left and right, including Rivlin, the racist statements by the fans were the most recent display of the club’s anti-Arab, hawkish identity, but they came as no surprise to those who follow the Israeli sporting world.
In a national soccer framework notable for the mix of Jewish and Muslim players, Beitar has never signed an Arab player, and when it signed a Muslim Nigerian international in the 2004-5 season, the protests by fans were so fierce that management released him soon after.
Statements issued over the years by the team have condemned racism and violence, while acknowledging the “small cluster” of dedicated fans who loudly express their hatred of Arabs. However, the decision by Ben Ari and Eldad to look for political support among Beitar’s followers could be an indicator that the cluster isn’t so minor. (The gambit failed; the pair failed to make it into the Knesset.)
Only a week before owner Arkady Gaydamak announced the purchase of the two Chechen players, the draw for the second-round Israeli Cup games determined that Beitar would host a lower division club from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm on Tuesday night, January 29.
The chance that Tuesday’s soccer game could turn into a battlefield between ideologically opposed fans with a history of mutual hatred alarmed many. Beitar asked that the game be played with the crowds kept out, a request being weighed by soccer authorities on Tuesday.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli legislator, called on the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) President Michel Platini to send a special observer to the match, in an attempt to help “quell racist slurs by some of Beitar’s fans, including insults targeting the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim community at large.”
“If [Beitar fans] curse the Prophet Muhammad, we’ll leave the field” and end the game, Umm al-Fahm’s coach Samir Issa told reporters. It was important for both the teams to cooperate in a “supreme effort” to change the stereotypes and make sure that no problems arose, he said.
Games between the Jerusalem side and its various Arab opponents have long been a source of headaches for Israeli police and the league management, anxious to avoid riots and violent confrontations between the opposing fans.
But it’s not only symbolic games against Arab teams that the hardcore Beitar fans despise; it’s all Arabs, perhaps all Muslims.
In one case, while celebrating their team’s clinching of the Israeli soccer championship in 2008, thousands chanted anti-Arab songs focused on Salim Toamah, an Israeli-Arab player who played for a Tel Aviv rival and Israel’s national team:
“What’s Salim doing here? I don’t know.
What’s going on here I ask?”
From all around me I hear,
Toamah here is the Land of Israel!
This is the Jewish state!
I hate you Salim Toamah,
I hate all the Arabs.”
To the tune of a well-known Israeli folk song — ironically written about the integration of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries who arrived in the country during the ’50s — Beitar’s fans called an athlete who regularly wore the national uniform a terrorist and wished him dead.
In a different incident, a mob of Beitar fans attacked Arabs at a mall next to the Teddy Stadium, following their team’s victory in a league match in March of 2012. Three Arab women and cleaning workers who rushed to their help were abused by the crazed fans.
After the display of racism at Saturday’s game, Gaydamak — a Jewish-Russian oligarch and owner of the team — made it clear he was disgusted by the actions of the fans.
“The vast majority of Beitar fans and Israeli society is against this anti-Muslim provocation,” Gaydamak told Army Radio. There is no conflict between Jews and Muslims from Chechnya, he said, noting that people of both religions throughout the Asian region had lived in peace for generations. “We shouldn’t create a confrontation from these stupid acts of a few youngsters.”
Chaim Mashraki, a fan who opposes the signing of the two Muslim players, told Channel 2 that it was “a wrong decision” to bring them to Beitar. “I have nothing against either one of them, but I don’t think they should be on the team,” he said.
Still, if the team decides to bring them, he and dozens of other fans will greet them at the airport with flags and songs, the same way every new player is received upon arrival in Israel, Mashraki told the Israeli news station.
Gaydamak was adamant that he would go ahead and sign the players, so we may be about to find out.