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Israel’s Arab-Free Soccer Team

Even in a raucous sports culture, Betar Jerusalem fans stand out for their racist views and hooliganism

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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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emunadate says:

If players can’t play together then they should have separate leagues and not compete with each other.  Israel has a wall that separates her from the the territorial arabs. Maybe sports teams should be separate as well…
http://emunadate.blogspot.com/2010/11/blog-post.html

yevka says:

Racist Israelis? Is this really a surprise in an apartheid state such as Israel?

As there is not a shred of evidence presented in this carefully researched and well-written article that indicates that the Arab or African or Ethiopian players and their communities contribute anything to this problem other than simply existing, the analogy to the ‘separation wall’ is a poor one. Mr. Warnick does an excellent job of describing how racism has been diminished in other areas of Israeli sport and society. It is incumbent on Israelis to continue to address this serious social issue. Pretending that this situation is somehow equivalent to the genuine security concerns that led to the separation wall does nothing to address the issue at hand. Emunadate’s posting reminds me of the old adage that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

AriShavit says:

no

What a surprise!  Israeli Jewish soccer fans appear to exhibit a strong anti-arab bias. Maybe 60+ years of arab terror attacks targeting Jewish men, women and children civilians, decades of stoning incidents injuring, sometimes killing, Jews and general arab racist incitement against the Jewish nation and its Jewish citizens might just have something to do with that anti-arab feeling. Warnick is an obvious  Liberal-Leftist who thinks the arabs are the victims in this drama. There are those who are victims through no fault of their own and then there are those who are self-made victims. Any fair-minded person educated on the Israel-arab conflict knows the arabs are entirely self-created ‘victims.’

udiS says:

Nonsense,  Beitar Jerusalem is the most Arab team in Israel! 

Friends, Thank you for the comments thus far. @facebook-586300767:disqus As always, for your cogent remarks and your reply to @emunadate. @yahoo-IFP6GQQMY3KE24RTHTWI3O6UCI:disqus My family and friends were howling – howling! – at your characterization of my politics. But to the point: Despite the terror incidents that you note, I think the article also pointed out that Israeli Arab (as well as foreign African nationals) are an integral part of the league – save for Betar Jerusalem. Perhaps I should have emphasized more that even with regards to the post-game altercation between the Arab team from Lod and Hapoel Ramat Gan, there was no mention of Arab vs. Jew; it was, well, just another example of gratuitous soccer violence, which seems to be an integral part of this sport.  @yevka:disqus Given the extent to which Israeli Jews, Muslims, Druze, Christians, Circassians et al mix with each other on almost every level, every day (including on the soccer pitch), your comment is simply ignorant.

 Whatever your politics may or may not be your definition of the Betar situation fits in with the Left’s line on arabs. Fandom,in any sport, and most certainly in a small country like Israel with its fracture line between Jews and arabs, is always an expression of ethnic identity as it is in other nations with similar inter-ethnic conflicts such as Northern Ireland. If an anti-arab bias were to be reflected in any team’s fan base it is perfectly understandable and natural that it would be Betar. However much the various ethnicities in Israel interact in their daily rounds, when you put tens of thousands of  Jewish nationalist soccer fans in a stadium and are angered by their anti-arab behavior you are, at best, naive or , at worst, chronically delusional.

Jacob Arnon says:

 

Many of the soccer players in this team are Arab Jews. This is true of the fans also. Half of Israel is composed of Arab Jews who had been ethnically cleansed from Arab lands. 

Secondly, is it surprising that Arab Jews should hate Arab Muslims who had mistreated them?

Finally, Israel is not an “apartheid State” as the antisemitic “yevka” claims.

It is a State which had been attacked by Arabs and  their leftist friends for over 50 years. Given this fact Israeli openness and tolerance is heartwarming.

Yevka like her Stalinist forebears would like to ethnically cleanse the children of Holocaust survivors and Jewish Arabs who found refuge in Israel. 

Shame on you Yevka.

Jacob Arnon says:

I’ll repeat what I wrote above:

 Many of the soccer players in this team are Arab Jews. This is true of the fans also. Half of Israel is composed of Arab Jews who had been ethnically cleansed from Arab lands. Secondly, is it surprising that Arab Jews should hate Arab Muslims who had mistreated them?Finally, Israel is not an “apartheid State” as the antisemitic “yevka” claims.It is a State which had been attacked by Arabs and  their leftist friends for over 50 years. Given this fact Israeli openness and tolerance is heartwarming.Yevka like her Stalinist forebears would like to ethnically cleanse the children of Holocaust survivors and Jewish Arabs who found refuge in Israel. Shame on you Yevka.

xmontrealer says:

Yevka insists on using the bludgeoning term of “apartheid” to describe Israel. It is designed to halt any legitimate discussion about problems Israel faces, and to relegate it to a side show freak.

Maybe Yevka can write an article on Jewish soccer stars in  Arab countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As that won’t take very long, maybe then we can actually carry on an adult conversation.

yevka says:

Victor, Victor, projecting will not win you a plea of innocence. 

yevka says:

 http://972mag.com/community-shaken-after-coordinated-attacks-on-african-refugees/43727/

Yalla Betar!

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Israel’s Arab-Free Soccer Team

Even in a raucous sports culture, Betar Jerusalem fans stand out for their racist views and hooliganism

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