Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) castigated fans of the soccer club he supports, Beitar Jerusalem, after three were arrested at the capital’s Teddy Stadium Saturday night for calling out racist chants and holding up signs reading “Beitar forever pure” during a match against Tel Aviv club Bnei Yehuda.
The chants — which included repeated calls of “No entry to Arabs” — were aimed at two Chechen players who are slated to become the first Muslim players to join the team: Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadaev.
“Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Imagine the outcry if groups in England or Germany said that Jews could not play for them,” said Rivlin. He said he would work to put an end to the club’s anti-Muslim discrimination.
Club coach Eli Cohen, also condemning the fans’ behavior, initially said Saturday night that these were friendly European Muslims not Arab Muslims; he later clarified that he opposed all racist sentiments. “There are millions of Muslims in the world, and we have to live with them,” he had said initially, and “there’s a difference” between those in Europe and those in the Middle East.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also condemned the incident. He said Beitar had made a “quantum leap in dealing with racism and violence,” and added that “the Jewish religion requires that we treat minority groups equally and fairly.”
“As we do not want Jews to be abused around the world simply because they are Jews… we must value Muslims and Christians playing on our sports teams. This is not just a soccer matter, but an international Jewish issue,” Barkat stressed.
Also noting the Holocaust Day coincidence, Barkat said the whole world watched Jerusalem’s behavior, and that racism among Beitar fans hurt the whole city. He urged the club’s management not to cave to fans’ pressure on the issue.
The club’s owner Arkady Gaydamak said the two players would indeed be signed. A very small group of “so-called supporters” — no more than a few hundred — were not representative of the greater Israeli public, he said, interviewed by Army Radio from Moscow, and would not be allowed to influence what happens at the club.
Gaydamak was denounced as “a whore” by sections of the chanting Beitar crowd on Saturday.
The deal to bring the two aboard has not yet been signed, according to team officials.
The team, which boasts a nationalist fan base, has famously and staunchly opposed bringing aboard Arab or Muslim players, bowing to pressure from fans.
Last season, several dozen fans rampaged through the neighboring Malcha Mall after a match, chanting anti-Arab slogans and reportedly beating up Arab workers.
“We are against racism and against violence and we pay a price for our fans,”Assaf Shaked, a team spokesman, told the Associated Press last year. “But we aren’t going to bring an Arab player just to annoy the fans.”
The two Chechen players were expected to arrive in the country this week, but according to Israel Radio one of them said he didn’t want to play in front of fans that judged him based on his religion.
Two of the three men arrested were released on Sunday and banned from attending games for the next two seasons. The third fan was scheduled to face a remand hearing on Sunday afternoon.