If you’ve been tuned in to global reporting out of Israel recently, you know that a Palestinian youth was burned alive after three young Israeli yeshiva students were murdered, as the demons of nationalism and violence have plunged the bearded zealots on both sides into a grim whirl of death and bereavement that will only end when decent people on both sides join together and affirm their commitment to peaceful co-existence.
It was an inherently dramatic story, helped along by breast-beating disavowals and stern condemnations by Israelis from across the political spectrum, from Shimon Peres to Benjamin Netanyahu to the extremist settler Rabbi Eliyakim Levenon of Elon Moreh, who issued a “religious ruling” that the perpetrators should be put to death. It was easy for everyone to be horrified by the crime, in part because there is no actual constituency—on any side—for burning children alive. Left-wingers used the story to denounce the inherent violence of the settlement enterprise. Right-wingers used it to display their moral superiority over their neighbors, who give out candy when Jews are slaughtered.
But like so many of the narratives beamed out of the Middle East by pale Western journalists who know so painfully little about the region and its inhabitants, this story, too, is utterly false. If you want to understand the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu-Khudair in the hands of six young Israelis last week, don’t turn to Bibi or the Bible or Hamas or Abbas: turn to Beitar Jerusalem, the favorite soccer team of Israel’s undivided capital.
All six suspects are fanatical Beitar fans. According to an Israeli police officer familiar with the investigation, who spoke to Buzzfeed on condition of anonymity, members of the murderous cabal are all affiliated with La Familia, a small group of several thousand Beitar fans known for their anti-Arab opinions and a more general penchant for thuggery. The six met at a soccer-related rally, the cop said, and decided to expand the scope of their hooliganism as far as they could, resulting in the murder of Abu-Khudair a short while later.
To American readers, across the ideological spectrum, very little about the soccer thug scenario is likely to make sense. Violence, it’s much easier to believe, is cyclical and systemic, the product of lunatic rabbis, the evil terror-plotters and bomb-makers of Hamas, and politicians on both sides who fan the flames ever-higher in order to maintain their grip on power. To think for one moment that violence might stem from soccer is about as comprehensible to most Americans as the incessant flopping and complaining in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Yet if you understand soccer, and if you know Beitar, you realize that an act of extreme Clockwork Orange-style violence is an entirely possible, even predictable, outcome of the team’s fringe culture. I speak from experience: I am a lifelong, dedicated fan of Beitar Jerusalem, and during my years attending its games I’ve witnessed my share of appalling brutalities, in times of crisis and times of peace, almost always without any racial or nationalistic impetus. As far as I could tell, the aim was simply the pure, visceral, sickening thrill of violence. Sometimes, it appropriates the language of politics, attaching itself to a party or an ideology or an ethnic group. But it’s always first and foremost about soccer, about the ritualized violence that gives young and hopeless men meaning and comfort.
I should also admit that I often found these sprinklings of violence tolerable, even constructive. In a society turned flightless by the rigid demands of civility—the same principle that insists that all kids share their toys at the playground, even though there is no moral or practical reason to allow a pushy stranger access to your personal property—a little bit of raw, primordial roaring, I thought, was necessary to restore balance. That, at least, is what I told myself as I sat at Teddy, Beitar’s stadium, named after Jerusalem’s legendary mayor Teddy Kollek, watching fans slap, kick, and knee each other, hard, in-between ribald chants. I enjoyed the dark Yin of this mild thuggery, which balanced out the Yang of sensitivity training and fad diets.
And then there were horrible moments of reckoning. One such moment came in the late 1990s, when Beitar lost a crucial do-or-die match to Maccabi Tel Aviv. Maccabi plays in Ramat Gan Stadium, which is right next door to the Ramat Gan mall, one of the nation’s first and largest institutions of its kind. By the time the referee blew the final whistle, most of the Beitar fans seated next to me had come up with an instructive chant: “Burn down the mall,” it went, “burn down the mall, burn down the mall.”
Which is what they tried to do: Someone produced a few rags, someone else had a match, and before too long a horde of a few dozen fans, paintless Bravehearts in jeans and T-shirts, advanced on Ramat Gan mall’s nearest gate with destructive glee. Policemen arrived on horseback. The fans started punching the horses. Policemen dismounted to protect their beasts. The fans tried to climb into the saddle and enlist the animals in their attack. If I remember the scene correctly, and I was too terrified to pay very close attention, one of them succeeded in his quest. If you’ve seen the poster for the new Planet of the Apes film, you have a pretty good idea of what the scene looked like.
Unfortunately, moments like this have grown more and more common in recent years. La Familia—which, according to some reports is 5,500 fans strong—had moved from low-level barbarism to rabid mass attacks. Sometimes, these attacks took on a racial spin, such as when a group of 300 fans, elated after a Beitar victory, walked in to a shopping center in 2012, shouted “Muhammad is dead,” and attempted to beat up every Arab Israeli they could spot. There were the endless verbal assaults on the team’s two unfortunate Chechen Muslim players.
Yet to see La Familia as the racist brown shirts of Israeli nationalism would be to ignore the vast majority of their crimes, which show that they are devoutly egalitarian devotees of violence for the hell of it, whether they were robbing fans of opposing teams at knife point or burning down their own clubhouse—destroying equipment and precious memorabilia—to express displeasure with the team’s management. After that incident, one Beitar coach warned that if La Familia was “burning buildings now” they might “burn people next.”
It should also be noted that Beitar’s management, along with most of its fan base, was revolted by La Familia’s terrorism and did whatever it could to curb it. The Israeli police followed suit, doing everything from issuing restraining orders barring La Familia’s leadership from Teddy to arresting anyone suspected of partaking in any act of violence of vandalism. This tough stance was welcomed by most Israeli politicians; “I am glad that that the team heads and its tens of thousands of fans have come to realize the despicable fanclub has done the team more harm than good with its racist and violent displays,” Sports and Culture Minister Limor Livnat said after the clubhouse was torched, echoing the sentiments of many Israelis.
There are those who will compare the speed at which the Israeli police were able to locate the murderers of Muhammed Abu-Khudair with the Palestinian Authority’s continuing inability to bring the murderers of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach to justice. Yet one reason why the police in Jerusalem may have apprehended their suspects so quickly is that they have devoted considerable resources over the past decade to keeping tabs on the city’s violent soccer hooligans, just like police do in Munich, and Warsaw, and Brussels, and London, and Madrid. Abu-Kudair died of the same dark force, so closely intertwined with the game I love, that killed Tony Deogan, a young Swedish supporter of IFK Göteborg who was pummeled to death by fans of the rival team AIK in August of 2002; that claimed 24-year-old Mariusz B., stabbed in the back in 2003 after Polish hooligans, armed with knives and cleavers and clubs and stones, congregated in a street near the Wroclaw soccer stadium and went at it; that ended the life of Aitor Zabaleta in 1998 because he fancied Real Sociedad and his attacker preferred Atlético Madrid; that guided fans of Al-Masry to rip into their brothers who rooted for Al-Ahly in the Stadium in Port Said, Egypt, in 2012, leaving 79 dead and more than a thousand fans injured.
The truth is that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority, settler rabbis and Hamas all have nothing to do with the terrible events that unfurled after six lowlifes forced a sweet-faced kid into their car and burned him alive. Soccer does. So please, enough with the ancient hatreds and the cycle of violence. The death of Muhammed Abu-Khudair is a terrible tragedy, but it’s not one unique to Israel. Anyone who watches soccer more frequently than a few matches every four years understands that intuitively.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.