Beitar fans display logo of assassinated extreme right wing Rabbi Meir Kahana
By James M. Dorsey
Beitar Jerusalem, the bad boy of Israeli soccer, has appealed an Israeli Football Association (IFA) decision to dock it two points after fans shouted racist slurs against a Nigerian-born international striker Toto Tamez during a match against Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Beitar is likely in its appeal to argue that it is seeking to rein in its Sephardic Middle Eastern and North African Jewish fans, known for their dislike of Arabs Ashkenazi Jews of East European origin. The club is looking to hire a private security company to restrain its rowdy supporters.
The IFA's decision to activate a suspended two-point punishment of Beitar meted out last year because of its fan behaviour could prove disastrous as the club seeks to evade relegation because of poor performance.
Beitar this weekend scored much needed points with its defeat of Maccabi Netanya in a home match in Jerusalem's Teddy Kollek Stadium which it had earlier been ordered by the IFA to play behind closed doors because of racist chanting by its fans.
Israeli news reports quoted Beitar coach Yuval Naim as saying the IFA ruling was a disgrace. "They're killing us and demoting us a league. It's a death sentence for Beitar," Mr.Naim reportedly shouted.
Beitar was Israel's richest club until its owner, Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaydamak, cut funding and failed to sell the club to two American Jewish investors who are widely viewed as critical of Israeli policies and doves when it comes to achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace
The IFA said it was to penalising the club because "the Beitar management had not made an honest effort to combat the fans' chants."
That judgement was reinforced when Maccabi Haifa striker Mohammed Ghadir recently put Beitar on the spot by insisting that he wanted to join the club, which prides itself to be the only Israeli Premier League to have never hired a Palestinian player in a country whose population is for 20 per cent Palestinian and in which Palestinians play important roles in most other top league teams.
"Our team and our fans are still not ready for an Arab soccer player," Israel's liberal daily, Ha’aretz, recently quoted Beitar’s management as saying in response to Mr. Ghadir’s challenge.
Beitar's notorious racism prompted the IFA to become the only Middle Eastern soccer body to launch a campaign against.
Established in 1936 and supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revanchist Zionist youth movement. Its founding players actively resisted the pre-state British mandate authorities. Its fans shocked Israelis when they refused to observe a national moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Beitar has the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s top league. Since 2005 it has faced more than 20 hearings and has received various punishments, including points deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors because of its fans’ racist behaviour. The IFA recently ordered Beitar to play two home games behind closed doors and pay a $16,000 fine for fan rioting during a match against Bnei Yehuda.
Beitar’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. It’s fans revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
Despite the IFA's efforts, militant soccer fan racism is encouraged by far-right wing politicians such as National Union deputy Michael Ben-Ari, a proponent of expelling all Palestinians from Israel, who last year proposed legislation that would require members of Israeli national sport teams to sing the national anthem and recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The latter demand is rooted in an Israeli desire backed by Mr. Netanyahu to impose recognition of the Jews’ historic right to settle Palestine and block recognition of Palestinian rights to return to lands within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
Similarly, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who cultivates an image as a tolerant, modern public servant, has largely remained silent about the racism of home soccer team. Ha'aretz recntly pointed out that approximately one third of Mr. Barkat's constituents are Jerusalem's 280,000 tax-paying Palestinians.
The importance of Palestinian players to Israeli soccer was driven home to Israelis in 2005 when Abbas Suan, a devout Muslim who refused to sing the Hatikva before a game, achieved for a brief moment what politicians in more than a half-century had not: he united Israeli Jews and Arabs by securing with a last minute equalizer against Ireland Israel’s first chance in 35 years to qualify for a world cup. The game earned him the nickname The Equalizer and made him an Israeli hero; his cheery face and toothy smile featured in ads for the state lottery.
That sense of unity was short-lived. When Suan set foot on the pitch in Israel a week later as captain of Bnei Sakhnin, an Israeli Palestinian team, Jewish fans of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most nationalistic club, booed him every time he touched the ball. “Suan, You Don’t Represent US,” blared a giant banner in the stadium. Fans shouted, “We hate all Arabs.”
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.