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Beitar Jerusalem players celebrate a victory over Maccabi Herzliya at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. (Getty Images)

What was foremost on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s agenda at the outset of his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, April 22? Iranian nukes? The violence in Syria? No, it turns out that like every other sports fan in Israel, the prime minister was appalled by yet another weekend of gratuitous violence in Israeli soccer: “We want to see soccer. If there is violence, there will be no soccer,” he said. “Violence must be rooted out in order to reinstate a game that Israeli citizens, myself included, love very much.”

Netanyahu was reacting to only the latest in a series of violent soccer-related incidents. Two days prior, a fight between players and even coaches following a match between a predominantly Arab team from Lod and Hapoel Ramat Gan had landed several people in the hospital and others in jail. The Israeli league ended up canceling the next weekend of games while politicians and league officials wrung their hands in despair about the growing trend.

At the end of March, for example, following a 2-1 game won by Maccabi Petah Tikva over Hapoel Haifa, a mass brawl broke out on the field among players and representatives from both teams. Ali Khatib, a midfielder for Haifa and one of many Israeli Arabs now playing in the league, lost consciousness after he was head-butted by the Petah Tikva goalie coach and then kicked while he was on the ground by another opposing team representative. Earlier that month, a riot involving approximately 1,000 fans from Hapoel Tel Aviv took place after a loss to bitter rival Maccabi Tel Aviv. Metal poles were heaved from the stands into the stadium grounds preventing referees and players from reaching their dressing rooms, and 24 were arrested.

The scourge of violence in the soccer world both on and off the field is nothing new, and it’s no surprise that Israel is not immune to the sport’s often brutal culture. But in the Israeli version, the violence is related to the unique political nature of Israeli sports, which is often inseparable from the Israeli politics and the ongoing struggle between Jews and Arabs.

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Sixty-four years after its founding, Israel has successfully eliminated partisan politics from most sectors of the society, including health, employment, banking, and even the military. (The left-wing Palmach strike-force and right-wing Irgun paramilitary group were disbanded almost immediately following the establishment of the state in 1948.) Sports, however, is the last vestige of a social service in Israel with a strong connection to the political system.

Even the names of the country’s major sports organizations are fraught with political meaning and their leaderships generally strongly reflect party ideology. “Hapoel” (the worker) is affiliated with the Labor Party and Histradut labor union. “Maccabi” is connected to Israel’s center-right. “Betar” is the youth and sports division of the right-wing and ruling political party, Likud. And “Elitzur” is the sports movement of the National Religious Party.

Despite this connection, fans for most teams cut across all sectors of society. Fans of Hapoel Tel Aviv, for example can be rich, poor, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and include Arabs from Jaffa as well. But not all teams have shed their founding organization’s ideology.

More than any other sports team in Israel, the Betar Jerusalem soccer club exemplifies the old-time link between politics and sports. Jeremy Last, former sports editor for the Jerusalem Post and now a sports reporter in Israel for Associated Press, said of Betar: “It’s not just a football team—it’s a political movement.”

Betar’s fans are notorious for their long history of racist behavior directed at Arabs. Their team has been slapped with severe penalties in the past by the soccer league for racist chants and other related violence. After a recent game in March, fans gathered at Jerusalem’s Malcha shopping mall where they brawled with Arab employees and chanted, “Death to the Arabs.” Sixteen youths were subsequently arrested.

Last, the sports reporter, has attended dozens of Betar games over the last seven years. “There is definitely an anti-Arab feeling among a large section of fans who come to the games, which can be seen as a result of the unfortunate political situation,” he told me. “The lack of progress in the peace process creates a great deal of mistrust.”

Betar fans often sing anti-Arab chants, like this one about the Israeli Arab soccer star Salim Tuama, who has also played for the Israeli national team: “What is Salim doing here, I don’t know … Tuama, this is the Land of Israel. Tuama, this is the state of the Jews. I hate you Salim Tuama. I hate all the Arabs.”

Marc Weiss, a local Jerusalem resident, soccer aficionado, and supporter of a local lower-league Jerusalem team, notes that racism directed at African and Arab soccer players has almost disappeared as every team in Israel’s professional league has on its rosters both blacks and Arabs—save for Betar Jerusalem. The team currently has a Nigerian and an Israeli Ethiopian player on its roster and has had other black players on the team in recent years, but it hasn’t yet signed an Arab player.

“It’s more than a little absurd to direct racist comments at blacks or Arabs on the opposing team when you have them playing for your favorite side as well,” Weiss said. Not only are there numerous Israeli Arab players in the top professional league for club teams, but they play for Israel’s team, which gathers together the best Israeli players in the world. There are also Arab clubs in the top professional league. B’nei Sakhnin, a team named for the mixed Christian-Muslim town of 25,000 located in the Lower Galilee, famously won Israel’s prestigious State Cup tournament in 2004 and has been the subject of at least two documentary films. The team is a regular fixture in the league and is finishing this season in eighth place.

As African players have become an integral part of the Betar Jerusalem team, racist chants against blacks have almost disappeared, leading some to conclude that breaking the barrier of signing an Arab player to the Betar roster will go a long way to reducing or eliminating anti-Arab chants as well.

But while Betar’s management, led by its legendary goalkeeper Itzik Kornfein, has made progress in the fight against racism among its notorious fans it still has not made the move: “We just haven’t found a player who is the right fit for our team,” Asaf Shaked, the team spokesman, told me. Some claim that Kornfein and others are still afraid of the reaction that the signing of an Arab player might engender among their fanatic followers.

It’s not just soccer, basketball—considered by some to be the sport of the upper classes in Israel (as opposed to soccer, whose players and league officials are from predominantly Sephardic and poorer backgrounds)—is not totally immune. Following a recent playoff game between rivals Hapoel Jerusalem and Hapoel Holon, fights broke out among fans; a handful were banned from attending games for more than a year. Verbal violence is also standard at sports events in Israel. At basketball games of perennial Israeli champion and top European team Maccabi Tel Aviv, rival fans regularly call on Maccabi’s long-time chairman, Shimon Mizrachi, via an organized chant, “to commit suicide,” presumably because the team has dominated Israeli basketball for so long, winning the Israeli championship 38 times in the past 41 seasons.

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Racism against Arabs still rears its ugly head at Betar Jerusalem games led by its fanatic “La Familia” rooting section. And yet, some experts say they’ve actually detected a decrease over the years in abhorrent behavior at Israeli soccer games. A recent report from “Let’s Kick Racism Out of Israeli Soccer,” a program sponsored by the New Israel Fund that sends observers to stadiums around the country, has cited the significant decrease in racist behavior at games over the past several years—including at Betar’s Teddy Stadium, where management has made a concerted effort (at times to the consternation of La Familia) to eliminate offensive chants with off-field activities, pre-game ceremonies, and banners posted around the stadium.

Indeed, relatively speaking, perhaps Israel isn’t doing all that badly. Both Weiss and Last are of the opinion that real violence in Israeli soccer—despite the recent rash of incidents—is quite minor in contrast to many other countries. “It’s really small-scale,” said Weiss, who remembers when 96 soccer fans were trampled to death in the Hillsborough Incident in Sheffield, England, in 1989, not to mention the 79 people killed in soccer riots in Egypt this past February.

Nonetheless, while the Israel Football Association, Israeli soccer teams, and nonprofit organizations continue to try to make the sport free of racism and violence they still come up against unsavory incidents, problematic management, and organizations that are linked to Israeli party politics. Other countries may suffer from similar problems—the difference is that for Israel, the stakes are a lot higher.

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