An Israeli soccer team known for anti-Arab chants and far-right hooligans was awarded an anti-racism prize by President Reuven Rivlin on Monday, after improving its behavior.
Beitar Jerusalem, known for the often violent behavior of a group of ultra-nationalist fans, was awarded the “ground-breaking achievement” at the Shield of Honor awards by Rivlin in Jerusalem.
The club, which finished third in the Israeli Premier League last year, was recognized for its youth work and the establishment of a forum to deal with incitement and racism.
“I hope that Beitar will continue on the right and proper way, and your success will have a positive impact across the public,” said Rivlin, a Jerusalem native and longtime Beitar supporter.
The club has a controversial history in Israel.
Its fans often sing anti-Arab chants at matches, including “Death to Arabs.”
They have also chanted support for Yigal Amir, a far-right Jewish nationalist who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Many of its most extreme fans are part of the far-right La Familia fan group.
Last year, 19 members of the group were charged with attempted murder, including of rival supporters.
Beitar is also the only club in the Israeli league that has never had an Arab Muslim player.
In 2013, some Beitar supporters were angered by the signing of two Muslim players from Chechnya, forcing the team to hire bodyguards to protect them.
But Uri Levy of the Jerusalem-based football website Babagol told AFP the fans had made strides to improve Beitar’s “anti-Arab” reputation.
He said the club “significantly reduced” the number of racist chants after a series of fines.
“If we take the international reputation of the club, of course it would sound weird for this club to get an anti-racism award,” Levy said.
“But the truth is in the past year the fans have put in a lot of work and have sought to change.”