Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Israeli football club Beitar Jerusalem make offensive gestures with their hands during their club’s return match against Belgium team Charleroi on July 23, 2015, at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
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Pitch Imperfect

An Emmy-winning documentary about Israel’s most popular soccer team gets it all wrong for all the worst reasons

Liel Leibovitz
October 05, 2018
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Israeli football club Beitar Jerusalem make offensive gestures with their hands during their club's return match against Belgium team Charleroi on July 23, 2015, at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Like the most dutiful of high school papers, Forever Pure—an Israeli film that, earlier this week, won an Emmy for outstanding politics and government documentary—wastes no time delivering its thesis statement. Its subject, an opening title card informs us, is Beitar Jerusalem, “the most controversial team in the Israeli football league.”

Just what is it that makes the club so contested? The title card is followed by an ominous shot of a slow-rolling Honda Accord, with fans clad in yellow and black hanging out its windows, chanting like berserkers about to ravage some peaceful village. Another title card—it’s that kind of movie—informs viewers that “the club’s avid fan base believe Beitar Jerusalem is about more than football.” If you can muster enough sympathy to overcome this statement’s painful banality—would you believe that sports fans find deeper meaning in cheering on their favorite teams?—you’re ready for the film’s J’accuse. It’s simple: Beitar is “controversial” because its “avid fan base” is composed of a throng of irredeemable racist apes.

If you know little about Israel, sports, politics, or human beings, you may walk away convinced that the film’s director, Maya Zinshtein, makes a convincing enough case. She tells the story of the tempus horribilis 2012/2013when the team was forced to welcome two Chechen players to its ranks, causing some of its fans to cry foul and refuse to cheer on the team until it rid itself of its Muslims.

The film gives a good-enough account of the season’s descent into hell. In the beginning was the team’s then-owner, the shady Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak; seething that his millions did not secure him a seat as Jerusalem’s mayor, and eager to use Beitar to promote his business interests, Gaydamak took his players on a highly unusual midseason trip to Chechnya, to play a local team there as a way of courting the country’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov. As a parting gift to the hosts, Gaydamak decided to recruit two of the Chechen team’s players, Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev. Sitting in his ornate living room—think Napoleon by way of Las Vegas—Gaydamak grins wolfishly and, using words like “propaganda,” admits to the camera that he recruited the Chechens for no reason other than trolling the fans he felt had disappointed him electorally.

A director truly interested in the story—or, for that matter, in stories, period—might’ve recognized Gaydamak for who he is, a Eugene Onegin of the pitch, rich and bored and disdainful. Such a filmmaker might’ve then given us a portrayal of Gaydamak’s rise and fall: how he had, for years, supplied the team’s most zealous fans with various resources, how he arrogantly thought the entirety of Israeli democracy was for sale, and how, like a spurned lover, he soured on Beitar’s fans as soon as they no longer proved useful. Zinshtein had access and speaks Russian, yet she gives us only brief snippets of Gaydamak. At no point do we learn of the devastation he had wrought on the team, which included starving it of cash and appointing an inept management that mishandled Beitar so badly it was forced to cycle through five coaches in two years, testing the patience of players and fans alike.

But Forever Pure doesn’t wish to burden its viewers with context, nuance, or anything else that might distract them from the sideshow that erupted when the two Chechens landed in Jerusalem. Instead, it gives us the sound and the fury: We see fans issuing lewd threats, taking pride in their racism, and waving banners with slogans like “Forever Pure,” indicating that Beitar should never accept an Arab player to its ranks.

These charmers are known as La Familia, a group of hard core fans that is not above tossing the occasional Molotov cocktail in order to win an argument. These hooligans are Zinshtein’s true subjects, and we see them yowling and shoving and hurling insults.

How many of them are there? I’ve covered La Familia in the past, and my best estimate puts the group at a few hundred fans. Zinshtein’s footage seems to support this number: A La Familia Facebook post, presented on-screen, is shown to be liked by slightly more than 600 people, which may explain why the group’s nickname for itself is Hakometz, or the handful. We repeatedly hear one of La Familia’s members, Moshe, call in to radio shows and make fanciful pronouncements on behalf of the group, and you wonder if this angry man, apparently without friends or fellow travelers to join him in his quest, may be the loneliest man in Israel. When Zinshtein gives us scenes of La Familia in action, we see 30, maybe 50 people at any one time, a small knot of shaking fists and bulging eyes.

La Familia’s members, you would probably not be surprised to learn, do not particularly cherish chatting with the media; I know because I’ve tried. But Zinshtein doesn’t even go that far. In an hour and a half of drama, she gives us one or two brief snippets of fans speaking, selecting only the ones who confirm her biases. No real effort is made to listen to the rage-filled fans, or understand—as Israeli liberals insist we do when speaking about Palestinian violence—the root causes of their anger. Watching Forever Pure, you’d think that the biggest problem Jerusalemites have ever faced was midfielder Avi Rikan’s departure for FC Zurich. That nearly everyone depicted in the film grew up fearing suicide bombings, car-ramming attacks, and other ghoulish forms of Palestinian terrorism goes unmentioned. Beitar has more devoted fans than any other team in Israel, yet Zinshtein doesn’t trouble herself with finding even a handful who could face her camera and speak for themselves.

Who does get to speak is the media, which Zinshtein quotes repeatedly to build her case: Far from just a bushel of bad apples, La Familia represents the true views of most Beitar fans, who are simply too savvy to spew vitriol in the open. Pundit after pundit chimes in from Tel Aviv, rolling their eyes and furrowing their brows and making good use of adjectives like “despicable” or “shameful.” Beitar-bashing, as we fans know, is a hobby of Israel’s media—there as here a gaggle of increasingly intolerant progressives who accuse anyone who mildly disagrees with them of incurable racism. In the film’s climactic scene, Zinshtein pans on one empty seat after another, as radio personalities declare that Beitar’s legions of fans are staying home in deference to La Familia’s boycott. Not once does it occur to these learned high-paid talkers—or, for that matter, to Zinshtein herself—that there may be other reasons behind the fans’ decision to sit the game out. Not once does anyone suggest that when you repeatedly accuse tens of thousands of people of secretly being horrible racists just because a small group of maniacs happens to like the same team, you might—just might—make the game not that much fun to follow anymore.

Once Zinshtein hits her stride, nothing else matters. The Chechens themselves aren’t given enough screen time to develop into multifaceted and meaningful characters, and a rivalry between two other players—one supporting the newcomers, the other sympathetic to the fans—is equally unexplored. As the movie meanders to its end, you sense that the director isn’t curious about anything that doesn’t serve her obvious, flat, and largely false premise: Beitar fans, all of them more or less, are racist, racist, racist.

If you know the team’s history well, you may remember Goram Ajoyev, a Muslim Tajik who played for Beitar in 1989/1990, or Viktor Paço, an Albanian Muslim who was a beloved striker for Beitar in 1999/2000, or Ndala Ibrahim, a Nigerian Muslim who was loaned to Beitar by Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2005 and was a target of bigoted chants by some fans but who triggered nothing like the outrage surrounding the two Chechens. An honest filmmaker would’ve mentioned these precedents. A curious filmmaker would’ve set out to ask what might’ve changed, and why the same fans who cheered on the first three Muslims to wear the black-and-yellow jersey might suddenly turn on numbers four and five. These questions would’ve made for an insightful film; Zinshtein made other choices.

Observers of the stumbling American media, sadly, know all too well this way of looking at the world. It’s evident in the works of every journalist who beat his or her chest after Donald Trump’s election, promising to venture into real America and take its pulse before returning to telling turgid morality tales that portray anyone insufficiently devoted to the new woke agenda as some kind of monster. There’s no need to actually show these people, to really let them speak, to hear what they have to say. We already know that they’re our moral and intellectual inferiors, and now all we have to do is find some footage that confirms our prejudices. You will learn no more about Beitar Jerusalem, Israel, or soccer by watching Forever Pure than you will about conservatives, America, or politics by watching CNN. Thankfully, real life begins where fake news ends: Shortly after Zinshtein concluded her breathless tale of bigotry and empty seats, 31,000 fans flocked to see Beitar take on its sworn rival, Hapoel Tel Aviv. It was the largest crowd ever assembled in the history of the club.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.