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Soccer Fanaticism Leads to Violence Everywhere

Israel is no different than any other sports-obsessed country

Liel Leibovitz
July 07, 2014

Earlier today, I wrote an article suggesting that the brutal murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir by young Jews in Jerusalem had little to do with the cycle of violence that is the narrative of choice of journalists and intellectuals covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a lot to do with the fact that the suspects are active members of a group of fanatical fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, known for its frequent violent outbursts. Many readers took issue with the premise of the article; because I believe the point at stake could not be more crucial, let me sharpen it further.

First of all, it seems very likely that Abu-Khudair’s murderers were indeed active members of La Familia, the radical Beitar fan group. This was reported on Israeli and American media outlets, attributed to Israeli police officials familiar with the investigation.

Second, while members of La Familia, like soccer hooligans the world over, often express extreme nationalistic and racist views, they are, like soccer hooligans the world over, primarily disenfranchised young men taking comfort in organized expressions of aggression. This phenomenon has been well-documented, and needs very little by way of further analysis, but a helpful primer would be contemplating the difference between Skinheads and Neo-Nazis. The latter are an organized terror cell dedicated primarily to advancing a ghoulish ideology, while the former are poor and bored kids who found the heady cocktail of soccer, skull-cracking, and solidarity too potent to resist. Sometimes, Skinheads flirted with white supremacy. Sometimes they didn’t. And those scholars who studied them seriously, like the sociologist Dick Hebdige, concluded that their subculture is about much more than dogma: it’s about class, anxiety, even style—things that run deep and defy simple explanations. The same is true of La Familia.

A reasonable, critical-minded observer should have no problem accepting the possibility that a phenomenon prevalent in so many other western nations, from Sweden to Spain, could also occur in Israel. Sadly, this is frequently not the case. Haaretz, for example, published an editorial titled, “Jewish Hate of Arabs Proves: Israel Must Undergo Cultural Revolution.” Even if you take a great leap forward past the Maoist terminology, you’re still left to wonder just who the esteemed Israeli broadsheet believes ought to be revolutionized: the Israeli police, which conducted a swift, uncompromising, and effective investigation and brought the culprits to justice? The Israeli government, even the most hard-line member of which stated that Abu Khdeir’s killers ought to face the same harsh punishment meted out to Hamas’s terrorists? The Israeli public, organizers of so many spontaneous rallies over these last few days convened to denounce the heinous murder and express disgust with the suspects?

It comes down to this: a terrible thing happened in Jerusalem last week. Terrible things happen everywhere all the time, a universal truth that doesn’t make each individual travesty any less horrible or absolve those responsible of their sins. This is as true in Israel as it is anywhere else.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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