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The Dangerous Obsession with Beitar Jerusalem

February 27, 2013 2:00 am 3 comments

Israel's Beitar Jerusalem soccer team in a practice. Photo: Jonathan Peters.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a slew of articles about Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel’s leading soccer teams.

In brief, the story is as follows: the club, traditionally associated with the Revisionist Zionist movement, recently signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, Zaur Sadaev and Gabriel Kadiev. The move raised the ire of its extreme right-wing fans, who were already under the spotlight following a riot at Jerusalem’s Malha shopping mall last year, during which Arab cleaning staff were assaulted and abused.

Then, on Feb. 8, Beitar’s offices were the subject of an arson attack, which resulted in the destruction of many of the clubs trophies and other memorabilia. Shortly after the attack, the Israeli police announced the arrest of two Beitar fans in connection with the attack, both of them members of the group known as “La Familia,” which gathers together the team’s most violent and racist supporters.

Hopefully, these arrests signal the beginning of a crackdown on Beitar’s thugs. As Liel Liebovitz, a diehard Beitar fan, recently wrote in Tablet magazine, the onus now is on the club’s decent fans—the vast and silent majority—to counter La Familia’s provocations.

Still, the cascade of media coverage of these events has left me uneasy. I want to explain why.

I’ve lived in America for nearly a decade. Over that period, I’ve watched awareness and appreciation of soccer, a sport I’ve loved since I was a kid in England, grow enormously in this country. At the same time, most Americans still don’t follow soccer with any regularity. And weirdly, among American Jews of a certain generation, I’ve noticed that a fixation with baseball leaves them almost hostile to soccer, as though enjoying the latter amounts to betraying the former.

Please understand: It’s not my aim, in writing this, to persuade Americans, Jewish or not, of the inherent superiority of soccer. I want merely to point out that if you are basically unaware of the history and culture of the game, you are going to be under the dangerously false impression that Beitar’s fans are the worst in the world, thanks to the media’s disproportionate focus on their antics.

Take the recent story on Beitar authored by the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren. Her truly appalling piece was headlined “Some Fear a Soccer Team’s Racist Fans Hold a Mirror Up to Israel”—implying, almost gleefully, that a few thousand fans chanting anti-Arab slogans encapsulates the noxious essence of Israeli society. Rudoren’s source for this insight was Moshe Zimmerman, an anti-Zionist professor at the Hebrew University, who told her, “[T]he fact is that the Israeli society on the whole is getting more racist, or at least more ethnocentric, and this is an expression.” This, by the way, is the same Moshe Zimmerman who has called Jewish residents of the West Bank “Nazis,” and their children “Hitler Youth.”

Because of Rudoren’s gullibility, along with her predisposition to portray every social ill in Israel as an existential or moral crisis for the state, readers of her story were denied the crucial context to understand the events at Beitar. Nowhere did she mention that one of Israel’s most storied players is Walid Badir, an Arab citizen from Kafr Qasim, nor that the national team’s roster contains Arab and Muslim stars like Beram Kayal and Maharan Radi. Critically, Rudoren failed to note that ethnic integration is the norm in Israeli soccer, and that therefore Beitar’s racist minority fans are an aberration.

To those of us who know the game of soccer, that is hardly a revelation, especially as the story of Israel’s national sport is also a story of the fight against racism. No other national team in the post-war era has suffered from the prejudice and discrimination that Israel has. I say this because Israel has had to put up with racism not just from opposing fans, but from the governing institutions of soccer as well.

The world of international soccer is organized by regions. As a state in Asia, Israel’s clubs and its national team should compete in the Asian region. In 1974, however, the Asian Football Confederation bowed to the pressure of the Arab boycott by expelling Israel. Not until the 1990s did Israeli soccer again find an international home, this time in Europe.

FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, did nothing to confront this naked Arab racism, just as it never disciplined the coach of one of Europe’s minor national teams, Andorra, for yelling “You are a nation of killers!” at Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun during a 2006 match. Nor did FIFA discipline the coach of Norway’s national team for urging, in 2010, a boycott of Israel. Meanwhile, the racist Arab boycott continues to hold sway; only this month, Itay Schechter, a striker with English Premier League side Swansea City, was prevented from joining his team at a training camp in Dubai solely because of his Israeli passport.

None of these pertinent details made their way into any of the recent reporting on Beitar Jerusalem. Nor would you know—unless, again, you are a soccer fan—that racism among supporters is a global problem, particularly in Europe. For example, I have seen nothing in the New York Times about the refusal of the supporters of Russian team Zenit St. Petersburg to permit their club’s management to sign a black player. Similarly, no American outlet has reported that an upcoming match between Hungary and Romania may be played in an empty stadium, because of fears that anti-Semitic and anti-Roma chanting will get out of control.

This June, Israel will host the European Under-21 soccer championship. It will be a wonderful opportunity to watch the stars of tomorrow, as well as showcasing the vibrancy and tolerance of Israeli soccer. Already, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists are calling for the tournament to be cancelled. I live in hope that some mention of this will make its way into the American media. But if it doesn’t, please do us all a favor: if you won’t understand that racism in soccer is a long-established challenge far beyond Israel’s borders, stop smearing Israel with innuendo, and stop insulting the sport that billions of us around the world love with passion.

3 Comments

  • Mihai-Robert Soran-Schwartz

    Soccer? The excuse for Israeli, German, British, Egyptian, French, and … another slightly kless than 200 countries to celebrate their worst prejudices. Soccer can be a feast, but it is just the tool for group terrorism. And Betar is a shining example for it.
    And BTW, dear author: All Antisemites always had some JEwish friends (they said…). Exactly like you do in regard to Palestinians. I bet all you want that your Palestinian friends don’t consider you their friend. No surprise at all

  • Jonathan Mishkin

    I found both this article by Mr. Cohen and the response from Mr. Soakell truly astonishing. Neither had much relevance or connection with the initial New York Times article. But so what? Why reason when it’s so much more fun to vent? But these are the salient points from Ms. Rudoren’s article that neither respondent choose to acknowledge:
    1. Of all the football teams in Israel, only Betar Jerusalem, the mascot of the Herut/Revisionist movement, has never had any Arabs on its roster. Her point was not that Israeli football is racist; it is not. Heck, a mostly Arab team, Bnei Sakhnin, won the national title several years ago.
    2. But it does reveal something when a team as prominent as Betar can get away without any Arab players for so long. Could you imagine an American baseball or football team resisting the signing of say, a black or Hispanic player? Simply because they were black or Hispanic. The general manager wouldn’t be fired because of his racial views. He would be fired because he didn’t care enough about winning. Branch Rickey didn’t sign Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers because he was some liberal. He signed Robinson because he wanted to win. Similarly, the story is told that Bear Bryant, the legendary football coach of the University of Alabama, wanted to be able to recruit African Americans to the team but couldn’t because of racial prejudice in the South at the time. (This was the 1970’s.) He saw that this prohibition was preventing Alabama from maintaining its ranking as a top tier football school. So he arranged to play the University of Southern California (USC), an integrated team, in Birmingham, Alabama. USC was led by a great fullback, Sam (“Bam”) Cunningham, a black player, who proceeded to score two touchdowns as USC routed Alabama. End of recruiting restrictions.
    3. That’s the anomaly about Betar. Its fans care more about racial purity than winning games. And what is this nonsense that a “silent majority” wanting to counter La Familia? First, what sports team on the planet has silent fans? Second, why hasn’t this so called “silent majority” been more vocal about winning? I cannot believe that they cheer when their team loses.
    4. Rudoren’s article was written by an American for an American audience. While unfortunately, racism is a fact in European soccer that many have acknowledged, the point was not to place Betar Jerusalem in that context. Rather, in the context of Israel, as a liberal democracy, and as “start up nation” with an advanced high tech sector, her concern was with this contradiction. Other European countries with issues surrounding the assimilation of racial minorities and immigrants have used sports as a vehicle to promote integration. Witness the French soccer team. Wasn’t one of the heroes of a recent World Cup victory the child of immigrants from Algeria? I could point to other examples in Europe. Israel’s national side also has Arabs. Why not Betar?
    5. Finally, the link that the Cohen and Soakell try to draw between the Times article and the BDS movement is truly breathtaking. The two have nothing to do with one another.

  • Great article. As you state, “Hopefully, these arrests signal the beginning of a crackdown on Beitar’s thugs”… and thugs are exactly the issue. Every team has its ‘thugs’ and if one was to look back to the 1970’s this was at it’s worse in the UK. It has nothing to do with the mind-set of Israeli’s… Indeed, if those who supported BDS actually got off their backsides and went to Israel, they’d realise the truth. As I mentioned in last week’s report, any talk of imposing direct or indirect sanctions, or full-scale economic boycotts of Israeli businesses and communities will only harm the Arab Palestinians themselves. It is so strange how these politicians and activists claim they are acting in the best interests of Palestinian Arabs, when in truth, by boycotting any Israeli products only harms the Palestinians. It is a message that the BDS Movement, and all that support them, just don’t appear to understand. I’m a life long Norwich City fan – in the English Premier league. However when I’m in Israel I watch Beitar and have always found the fans of Beitar friendly – even if I wear my Norwich shirt! They even give me ‘high fives’ when I join in singing the hatikvah at the start of the game. There has always been racism in football and sadly there always will be – it has nothing to do with “far-right Zionists”. I am a Zionist, and I have many Palestinian friends too… it’s time these BDS idiots got real and did something useful in society.

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