Israel’s Arab-Free Soccer Team
Even in a raucous sports culture, Betar Jerusalem fans stand out for their racist views and hooliganism
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.
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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The famed hairdresser, who died Wednesday, fought against British fascists and then for Israel’s independence