By James M. Dorsey
The Israeli government, in a historic break with past policy, is taking right-wing, nationalist Israeli soccer club, Beitar Jerusalem, to task for its openly racist policy of refusing to hire Israeli-Palestinian players, who rank among the country’s top performers.
The move just weeks after the Israel Football Association (IFA) narrowly pre-empted adoption of a resolution put forward by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) suspend Israel’s membership in world soccer body FIFA in part because of its failure to crack down on racism in Israeli soccer. In a compromise, the PFA withdrew its demand in favour of the establishment of a FIFA committee to monitor Israeli efforts to address Palestinian grievances.
This week’s government move adds credence to the PFA’s assertion of racism and discrimination and criticizes the IFA, the only Middle Eastern soccer association to have a formal anti-racism program even if its enforcement has been less than vigorous in curbing excesses by Beitar Jerusalem and its rabidly racist, xenophobic fan base.
The move also amounts to recognition that IFA disciplinary measures against Beitar, which has the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s Premier League because of the racism of its fan base, have so far failed to persuade the club to alter its attitudes.
The IFA has repeatedly fined Beitar, founded as a militant nationalist club that has been supported since its inception by right-wing Israeli leaders all the way up to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and deprived it of points – penalties that have not been painful enough to force the club to take on its fan base. To be fair, the same can be said of the government.
The government has had multiple opportunities to summon Beitar to appear before the economy ministry’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to justify its refusal to hire Israeli Palestinian player.
One of the most evident opportunities was in 2011 when Mohammed Ghadir, a Palestinian striker, said he wanted to play for Beitar but was rejected. "I am well suited to Beitar, and that team would fit me like a glove. I have no qualms about moving to play for them,” Mr. Ghadir said at the time. Beitar refused to hire two other Palestinian players, Abbas Suan and Ahmed Saba’a, who had also agreed to play for the club.
This week’s summons followed Beitar’s refusal to comply with the commission’s demand in April that it retract statements that it would maintain its policy of not hiring Palestinian players because of opposition by the team’s militant fan base. At the time, the demand seemed at least in part designed to provide counterweight to the Palestinian effort to get Israel suspended from FIFA.
Without an immediate pretext at the moment of a player that was refused a contract, the timing of the government move appears more likely than not to be driven by domestic and geo-politics. The summoning of Beitar counters Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s use of anti-Palestinian fearmongering to clinch a narrow election victory in May – a tactic was criticized by the Obama administration, Israel’s closest ally.
Beitar was founded in 1936 by members of the Beitar movement established in 1923 in Latvia as part of the revanchist Zionist trend. Beitar’s founder, former Ukrainian war reporter Ze'ev Jabotinsky, hoped to imbue its members with a military spirit.
The club initially drew many of its players and fans from Irgun, an extreme nationalist, para-military Jewish underground that waged a violent campaign against the pre-state British mandate authorities. As a result, many of them were exiled to Eritrea in the 1940s. Many of La Familia’s members are supporters of Kach, the outlawed violent and racist party that was headed by assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane. La Familia frequently displays Kach’s symbols.
Beitar’s initial anthem reflected the club’s politics, glorifying a “guerrilla army racist and tough, an army that calls itself the supporters of Beitar.” That spirit still comes to life when fans of Beitar meets their team’s Palestinian rivals. Their support reaches a feverish pitch as they chant racist, anti-Arab songs and denounce the Prophet Mohammed.
Beitar’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. The club’s hard core fans -- Sephardi males of Middle Eastern and North African origin who defined their support as subversive and against the country’s Ashkenazi establishment -- revel in their status as bad boys. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction, rooted in resentment against social and economic discrimination, rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
The club’s La Familia support group sparked rare national outrage in 2013 when it unfurled a banner asserting that “Beitar will always remain pure” in protest against the club’s brief hiring of two Muslim players from Chechnya. It was the group’s use of language associated with German National Socialism that sparked the outrage against its consistent racism.
The failure to seriously confront La Familia has entrenched Palestinian perceptions of an Israeli society that is inherently racist. Israeli Palestinian Member of Parliament Ahmed Tibi has laid the blame for La Familia’s excess at the doorstep of Israeli political and sports leaders. “For years, no one really tried to stop them, not the police, not the club, not the attorney-general and not the Israeli Football Association," he said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.