Fighting Soccer’s Barbarians
My beloved Beitar Jerusalem has some racist fans. Instead of abandoning the team, we should take it back.
Beitar Jerusalem, the iconic Israeli soccer team, gave one of its better performances of the season earlier this week, defeating Maccabi Umm al-Fahm 5-0, but almost none of the thousands in attendance were paying any attention. Most of the fans, along with hundreds of policemen, scores of security guards, plainclothes detectives, and the Israeli media, were watching the stadium’s eastern terrace, the haven of a small group of hardcore fans calling itself La Familia. Unabashedly racist, frequently violent, and unafraid of clashing with the team’s management, La Familia is costing Beitar dearly: The group’s deeply offensive chants have led the Israel Football Association to repeatedly fine Beitar tens of thousands of dollars, and Israeli public officials are calling on anyone from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to step in and curb the hooligans.
Wary of riots, the team’s general manager, a beloved former Beitar goalkeeper named Itzik Kornfein, appealed to hold the game against Umm al-Fahm—most of whose players are Arab Israelis—in an empty stadium, prohibiting any spectator from entering, and hiring guards to prevent La Familia from sneaking in. It was an extreme step, and public pressure soon forced Kornfein to retract his proposal. Instead, he had the police issue restraining orders for several dozen of La Familia’s rowdiest members.
Kornfein’s measure was only a stopgap. The real battle will occur in the weeks to come, when Beitar is slated to welcome the first Muslim players in its history. Faced with the news, La Familia announced that since the racial purity of the team was at risk, they had no choice but to declare war against their beloved team.
It’s an almost comical thing, for dedicated fans to mobilize against their own team, but no one who has been following La Familia’s growth found any humor in their declaration. The group was founded in 2005. Back then, Beitar, though struggling, enjoyed a solid reputation as the unofficial team of the Likud, with Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and other party luminaries attending its games. By affiliation—Beitar was founded by the Revisionist Zionist group of the same name—the team was always associated with the right, but there was not much radical politics on display at its actual games. Occasionally, especially when playing the much-reviled team associated with the socialist left, Hapoel Tel Aviv, things would get heated. Sporadically, more overtly racist statements, like “death to the Arabs,” would be made. But, overall, Beitar’s fans were no better and no worse than those of any other team.
Slowly, that changed. In 2007, during a moment of silence to honor the slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, La Familia’s members stood up and started enthusiastically shouting the name of his assassin, Yigal Amir. Then, in a burst of twisted creativity, the group introduced an impressive canon of chants, each more vile than the next. “Baruch Goldstein is a dear,” went one of the popular ditties, referring to the Israeli settler who opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and killed 29 Palestinian worshipers praying there. “Yigal Amir, thank you very much. Every time an Arab gets killed is a festive day for me.”
Its membership rising—by most accounts, La Familia is currently 5,500 fans strong—the group became a de facto lobby and quickly began intervening in the team’s decision-making process. In 2009, faced with growing criticism of its fans’ racist behavior, Kornfein, the general manager, spearheaded a move to bring Abbas Suan, a star Israeli-Arab midfielder, to Beitar. La Familia objected. An Arab, they declared, should never be allowed to play for Beitar. Exerting pressure on the team’s management and players, they torpedoed the move.
At first, Beitar’s owner, the Russian-born oligarch Arkady Gaydamak, seemed to favor a policy of containment. A 2007 profile of Gaydamak’s right-hand man, Yossi Milstein, revealed that Milstein was in daily contact with La Familia’s leaders and in the habit of occasionally funneling funds to pay for what was described as “cheering accessories.” In return, Gaydamak and his men expected quiet.
But having named itself after the Italian mob, it was only a matter of time before La Familia made a move on its patron. Like the mafia movies that inspired them, their actions were now feats of operatic violence: In January of 2008, for example, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the offices of the soccer association. La Familia denied any knowledge of the attack, but the organization’s name was spray-painted everywhere on a nearby wall. Soon thereafter, the group took to beating—and, in one case, allegedly robbing at knife point—fans of opposing teams. They seized and brutalized a handful of Arab youth employed by Beitar as janitors. And in March of 2012, elated after a victory, more than 300 La Familia members filed into the Malha Mall, adjacent to Beitar’s stadium, started chanting “Muhammad is dead,” and then sought out and beat up any Arab Israeli they could find.
This was more than Gaydamak was willing to take. Drawing on his extensive business connections in the former Soviet republics, he reached out to Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya. Kadyrov is known both for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses and for his lavish lifestyle; in 2011, he celebrated his 35th birthday by flying in a bevy of Western celebrities, including action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and actress Hillary Swank. He is also the former president of Terek Grozny, the republic’s premiere soccer team. Gaydamak needed help: La Familia, he knew, would block any attempt to recruit an Israeli-Arab player, but a Chechen Muslim baller might pass, buying Beitar some desperately needed good will. Kadyrov’s proposed prospects were far from stellar, a 19-year-old defender with little experience, and a striker with a middling record. But if signed, they would set a precedent. Gaydamak returned from Grozny and announced the deal.
La Familia’s response was prompt. In last week’s game against Bnei Yehuda, the group took its usual place in the eastern terrace of Beitar’s stadium by giddily chanting, “We’re the country’s most racist team,” and then launched into a barrage of songs, most of which dealt with killing Arabs. As the match was reaching its peak, they unveiled an enormous homemade banner that read “Beitar will forever remain pure.” Their antics cost the team a $10,000 fine. In an effort to quell the conflict, Beitar’s coach, Eli Cohen, tried his hand at a bit of commentary. “We have no problem with Muslims,” he told the Israeli press. “We have a problem with Arabs. There’s a difference between a European Muslim and Muslims from the Middle East.” Needless to say, the statement did little to help the team appear more enlightened.
And while this week’s game against Umm al-Fahm, thanks mainly to massive security, proceeded without incident, some of Beitar’s most prominent fans, disgusted with La Familia’s antics, are publicly disavowing the team. Olmert, for example, wrote a widely discussed op-ed on Wednesday, announcing the he will no longer attend Beitar’s games until La Familia is stamped out. “If we do not remove these racists from our stadium and disconnect them from the team,” Olmert wrote, “we will be just like them. I will not be attending Beitar games until they are removed. I am sick and tired of being affiliated with the dark vulgarity of people who will never be a part of what Beitar is supposed to symbolize in sports and in Israeli society.”
I applaud Olmert’s sentiment but cannot bring myself to boycott Beitar. The thing is, I love that team, love it in an uncomplicated way, love it despite of its athletic shortcomings and its moral failings. I learned to love soccer on the eastern terrace, in the 1990s, and a big part of the attraction was the wild energy—then not nearly as odious as it is today—of the team’s most dedicated fans. And being a fan of Beitar also taught me that Frank Foer was right when he observed soccer’s canny capacity to preserve and cultivate nationalist pride while reining in actual tribal violence. As much as the goons of La Familia are injurious to my sensibilities, I am relieved to see that beyond the sporadic outburst here and there, the group has failed to join forces with any of the like-minded—and truly violent—radical right-wing organizations working in Israel today, such as the Kach movement or fringe settler groups like the hilltop youth. Instead, La Familia invests all of its considerable resources—manpower, cash, enthusiasm—in Beitar. And while their behavior is offensive, it is, taken in perspective, without much consequence.
Rather than abandon the team and leave it with few fans but the fanatics, I hope to see more diehard Beitar followers pack its stadium and counter La Familia’s viciousness with humor and creativity. For every violent call to genocide they compose, let’s write wittier, peaceful ditties. True, there’s not much that rhymes with “Muslim” or with “Chechnya,” but we shall overcome. And rather than exhaust itself in endless war against La Familia, Beitar should find better ways to attract new fans. It should not focus on what it’s not—not racist, not hateful, not violent—but on what it is. And what it is, what it has always been, and what I deeply believe it will always remain, is a fine, fine soccer team.
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