How Israeli football is redeeming the sins of the far-right Beitar Jerusalem

How Israeli football is redeeming the sins of the far-right Beitar Jerusalem

Half-eaten dinners littered the floor of houses sheared in half. Pages from children’s bedtime story books fluttered hauntingly in the wind. On 19 April 2002, amidst the soft lunar landscape of the West Bank’s Jenin Refugee Camp, Moshe Nissim descended from his bulldozer and surveyed the terrain of tortured metal and interrupted lives. For 72 hours straight, the soldier’s Caterpillar had punched through cinder-block houses and ploughed over dust-caked bodies.

As Nissim’s eyes poured over what the Israeli poet Natan Zach called his kingdom of death, past the pink rosettes of children and green bandanas of Hamas fighters, one element of his presence seemed to demean the hushed sanctity of the scene. From atop his Caterpillar’s aerial, Nissem had streamed the flag of his favourite football team, Beitar Jerusalem, a team whose rhythmic slogans declared, “May your village burn … No longer will the Arabs be here.”

Fortified by a litre of whisky, the man who described his love for Beitar as “like a kink in the brain, like a switch in my head” simplified his control over the life or death of Palestinians into pure footballing terms. “I wanted to make them [the Palestinians] a stadium in the middle of their town … to bury 40 or 50 people for generations,” he later told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

For many on the political left in Israel, televised images of the ‘Beitar bulldozer’ sparked an intellectual crisis. According to commentators such as Anat Rimon-Or, the transfer of Beitar fans’ murderous chants from Israel’s stadiums to its battlefields was symptomatic of the new “depraved indifference” of the country’s population to Arab lives. Israel’s not so beautiful game had come to shine a light on its not so beautiful politics. 

The hate first came to Israel’s national game on 1 November 1996. “Muhammed, sunnovabitch. Dirty Arabs go back to Gaza.” Typically, the atmospheres at Israeli football matches had resembled a sort of Home Front reserve duty – a dad’s army of football spectators. Middle-aged men with stiff upper lips would sit in buttoned-up jackets, their coloured scarves concealed below woolly jumpers with moth-eaten holes. The language would be terse and functional – moments of joy only briefly overcoming their learned state of perennial disappointment. 

Yet on that November day, the simmering anger amidst the Beitar fans who poured into the stadium’s away turnstiles soon curdled into something much more toxic. As Hapoel Taibe took to the field against Beitar, they were the first Israeli team from an Arab-majority area to play in the nation’s First Division. Inevitably, they became the symbolic embodiment of what had been a blind spot in Israel’s footballing discourse: Israeli Arabs.

When Israel’s famous sports journalist Yosef Finkelstein wrote in 1978 that “our nation’s football, like its streets, provides a perfect reflection of society,” it had gone unremarked that absent from this picture was the 20 percent of Israeli Arabs who constituted the country’s population. In Beitar, Taibe faced a team whose supporter group had experienced its own form of marginalisation.

Beitar was the club of the Mizrahi, the Jews who had arrived from the Middle East and North Africa only to be sneered at by their European counterparts. As the cultural historian Ella Shohat notes, the Mizrahi’s predicament was one of enforced hatred. To prove they were “genuine Jews”, many Mizrahi sought to politically outbid their fellow citizens in Israel’s identity wars by adopting a virile racism towards Arabs. As Hapoel Taibe arrived in town, the scene was set: this was Jews vs Arabs.

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Both clubs’ management had sought to discharge the politicised aspect of the match. Taibe had decided not to play in green, a colour associated with Islam, while both teams were to distribute roses to opposing fans prior to kick-off. Yet, within minutes of the match commencing, the Beitar fans started chanting “Terrorists” and “Screw Muhammed”, and the name of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish settler who had shot dead 23 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in March 1994. 

Of all that unravelled that day, the most significant was the Arab fans’ resistance to conflict. The sociologist Amir Ben-Porat was embedded as part of the Hapoel Taibe squad for two seasons between 1994 and 1996. Despite nationalist sentiment growing at unprecedented speed during this period – with the first Intifada of 1987 and the advent of Palestinian self-government in 1993 – he found that Taibe’s Arab fans still saw football as an integrative measure, an enclave of coexistence with their Jewish counterparts. Football was a level playing field, a muscle-building endeavour into which they could channel feelings of despair and seek validation of the worth of their existence.

Yet as Beitar fans chanted the name of Baruch Goldstein, Taibe supporters underwent a transformation: they were suddenlt willing to accept their identity as an Arab collective rather than mere football supporters. In singing “Biladi, Biladi”, a Palestinian nationalist song equating to ‘My homeland, My homeland’, they provided the opening refrain in a sectarian melody that has come to dominate Israeli football. Jews against Arabs: this is the narrative that the country’s national game has been reduced to.

In 2004, Israeli film-maker Mer Khamis returned to Jenin to document the lives of Palestinian children who still live amongst its rubble. Filmmakers usually avoid cheap shot juxtapositions, encouraging the audience to make their own associations. Yet Khamis didn’t hesitate in the opening sequences from showing footage from 2001 of Beitar fans singing the name of Nachum Korman – a Jewish settler who clubbed an 11-year-old Palestinian child to death with a rifle butt – alongside pictures of Israel’s army invading Gaza.

This bifocal presentation – football on the left of the screen, Jews and Arabs on the right – is typical of recent coverage of the nation’s game. When Bnei Sakhnin, an Arab team from Galilee, won the Israeli State Cup in 2004, a documentary produced for Channel 5 by French director Ram Levi presented the club’s achievement again through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This is despite such a narrative being in total contradiction to the manner in which Sakhnin’s own Arab fans perceived the success. As Amir Ben-Porat’s 2014 study shows, the 2004 team was seen as overcoming ethnic divides, featuring as it did a mix of Jewish, Arab and foreign players. Yet in the backwash of the vile racism of some Beitar Jerusalem fans, much of this complicated reality gets lost.

In January 2018, days after she had labelled the nation’s immigrants a “cancer”, Israel’s Sports Minister Miri Regev uploaded a video of herself with Beitar’s ultras as they sang genocidal songs calling on Jews to “burn down all the Arab villages”. Herein lies the problem Beitar poses to Israeli football. As Moshe Zimmerman of Hebrew University notes, it becomes harder to wave away Beitar Jerusalem as some kind of extreme fringe of a predominantly moderate society when government officials appear to condone the club’s racism.

Rather, as Benjamin Netanyahu parades around Teddy Stadium – the slogan of Netanyahu’s 1996 electoral campaign was “Likud is Beitar; Beitar is Likud” – it’s easy to jump to the opposite conclusion. As Likud normalises Beitar fans’ racism as part of the political mainstream, it’s all too tempting to see the club’s xenophobia as global to all of Israeli society and its football clubs – to draw a straight line between Beitar razing their team’s clubhouse to the ground at home and Netanyahu’s troops bulldozing Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories. In this light, individual football fans such as Moshe Nissim appear as handmaidens to a state’s expansionist settlement policy.

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Yet such a narrative blinds us to the truth that it is Israel’s football fans who represent one of the most significant constituencies of the political opposition movement against Netanyahu’s government. For it is not only Palestinians who are feeling dispossessed as a consequence of the changing power dynamics at play in Israeli society. “For years I avoided walking home to where the stadium’s stands, its boxes and goalposts had once stood/When I did return, to see the fancy new Katamon Gardens complex that stood where the northern stand had once hummed, I finally learned how it felt to be a dispossessed Arab.”

In his 2009 poem Goals, Israeli writer Gilad Meiri challenges the assumption that all Israeli football clubs are like Beitar: the Jewish oppressor of the Israeli-Arabs. The poem’s lines lament the fate of Meiri’s Hapoel Jerusalem, the club of Israel’s left-wing Histadrut trade union movement, which found itself thrown out of its historic Katamon Stadium in 1982 by a local council seeking to build a luxury apartment block on the vacated land.

With these experiences and others, Meiri seeks to realign “the inner goalposts of our minds” – to show us that many Jewish football fans have found themselves dispossessed of their clubs under successive Likud governments. These are the victims of what the London Review of Books author Adam Shatz has called Israel’s “Other War” – a Trump-like programme of privatisation that has witnessed the erosion of key pillars of civil society.

Israeli football has not been immune to this phenomenon. Under Likud in the 1990s, formerly state-owned clubs such as Hapoel Tel Aviv soon fell into the hands of unscrupulous businessmen such as Eli Tabib. Tabib had two previous criminal convictions for fraud and would soon allege to be conspiring with organised crime groups to divert transfer funds from Hapoel. That he could take control of one of Tel Aviv’s most famous clubs unchallenged is indicative of the fast and loose nature of privatisation and the disastrous impact it had on Israel’s clubs. By 2007, eight of Israel’s 12 top-flight clubs were reporting critical cash-flow problems.

As the cultural historian Itamar Rabinovich notes, Israel is a country where it feels like part of the national psyche to lament the road not taken – the historical turning point shunned, which might have provided a nation’s redemption. A country that has lived through a complex and arduous history has its fair share of seeming inflexion points: what if Yitzhak Rabin had not been assassinated in 1993 or Ariel Sharon had not built the Security Wall in 2002, would Middle East peace have been achieved?

Yet, if so often a cause of lament in the nation’s history, in Israeli football it is the story of a road not taken that provides a cause for celebration. At clubs such as Hapoel Katamon and Nordia Jerusalem, fans have refused to allow their social resentment to be manipulated into ethnic discrimination towards Arabs as has been the case with Beitar under the Netanyahu government.

Instead, they have done something far more creative: they have created a new form of civic organisation, a fan-owned football club that extends beyond the borders of the game to provide a new avenue for social justice in society.

In a country where the public’s trust in political parties is so low that only 14 percent of the population reports participating in some form of organised political activity in the last year, these clubs offer a revolutionary potential. Whilst Israeli newspapers such as Hareetz warn of the disintegration of Israeli society, football clubs offer a new form of tribalism where a shared love of the game can provide a gateway to social activism.

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They couldn’t have come at a more important time. In 2017, the normally reserved Israeli political commentators Marisa Mazria-Katz and Mairav Zonszein went so far as to declare that the Netanyahu government has declared “war” on Israeli civil society. The reason? Earlier that year, the government had closed down Israel’s public broadcasting equivalent to the BBC, the IBA, whilst simultaneously passing laws that restricted the activities of key human rights organisations such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.

With Israel’s political left floundering, these clubs have stepped into the political vacuum to offer community support and elements of social welfare. In projects that promote ethnic reconciliation, housing reform and education for the disadvantaged, they have, in short, fused together football fandom and labour activism.

“As I sit in my living room in Beit Hanina, I can see into your living room in Pisgat Zeev. If our eyes meet each other’s, we both know one thing: you are my enemy settlor neighbour and I am your enemy.”

Pisgat Zeev is a trendy Jewish settlement that sits across from the Palestinian district of Beit Hanina in eastern Jerusalem. Built in 1982, it was the first Jewish enclave in the predominantly Palestinian half of the city captured from Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967. The Jewish settlement was seen as a deft piece of cartographical needlework by Israel’s government, intended to sew together Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian halves. Instead, it has become seen as a sign of division.

A motorway sits between the two districts, segregating each town’s populations from one another. Yet, equally, the area’s contrasting socioeconomic fates serve as an invisible barrier between the two towns. Pisgat Zeev is thriving whereas Beit Hanina lacks basic sewage, water and schools. For the Palestinian intellectual Bernard Sabella, the cruelty of the juxtaposition is too much too bear: “You are my Jewish settlor enemy, I am your enemy.”

As Sabella’s words demonstrate, deep in the no man’s land that divides two districts, a new era of hatred and contempt is brewing. With over 40 percent of both Pisgat Ze’ev and Beit Hanina’s populations below the age of 18,  it is a region’s children that risk suffering. Already, news reports of reprisal acts between the two areas make for bleak reading. In 2014, 14-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was forced into a car before being burnt to death in Jerusalem Forest. In November 2015, 13-year old Ahmed Manasra from Beit Hanina attempted to murder a Jewish child in Pisgat with a knife.

Now, once a week, 50 children from Beit Hanina and Pisgat Ze’ev go hurtling towards each other on the football field. The same group will continue to meet and play for six years in an effort to break down the psychological walls that mirror a city’s physical barriers and checkpoints. The initiative is that of Hapoel Ketamon Jerusalem, a club in Israel’s second tier which, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, has already devoted 89,000 volunteer hours to running this and 58 other neighbourhood teams.

“I’ll piss on you, I’ll spit on you.” When Hapoel Jerusalem’s owner Yossi Sassi climbed a fence to hurl abuse at his team’s own supporters in 2002, the final straw has been reached for fans who could no longer watch the club’s continued debasement beyond recognition under the businessman. If Hapoel Jerusalem had once honoured its left-wing tradition, running a community league for boys and girls from Jewish and Arab Schools, Sassi had turned the club into a source of ridicule. The community schemes had been scrapped by Sassi in 1995; control over the club was subcontracted to his daughter who refused to employ safety stewards for home games.

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When fans finally lost a five-year battle to wrestle control of the club from Sassi in 2007, they decided to create Hapoel Ketamon Jerusalem. From its outset, this club was intended to be different: a melding together of a football club with a civic organisation seeking social change. As Amir Ben-Porat and Tamar Rapaport’s study of the professional backgrounds and demographics of Hapoel Ketamon’s founding members shows, the club was created by fans who were seeking a social framework to express their political aspirations.

Over 65 percent of the club’s founders belonged to Israel’s Generation X, those Israelis born between 1975 and 1985 who, as young wage earners in the 1990s, had suffered the consequences of privatisation, outsourcing of social services and deterioration of labour conditions. They had gone on to work for grassroots organisations that sought to enact social change. As one of the club’s founding members, Oriel Katz notes: “With our professional backgrounds, we couldn’t help but see that football’s privatisation was but part of a wider trend.” Establishing a fan-owned club and turning it into a focal point of communal initiatives constituted an act of resistance that expressed their outlook.

They are not alone in seeing football as a platform for political resistance. One by one, the igloo-shaped tents began to sprout like mushrooms along Tel Aviv’s most expensive boulevard in July 2011. The month before, a young schoolteacher facing eviction due to the city’s spiralling rent prices had invited a dozen friends on Facebook to join her in pitching a tent on Rothschild Boulevard in protest.

Rather than 12 friends, she was joined by 430,000 protestors who took to the streets in Israel’s largest protests since 1967. With even 87 percent of Netanyahu’s own Likud supporters backing the protests, the Prime Minister was in trouble. For the first time during his regime, a social movement risked undermining his government’s legitimacy.

South of Rothschild Boulevard in the cramped neighbourhood of HaTikva, however, another storm was brewing that risked offering Netanyahu a get out of jail card. The protestors in Hatikva were also demanding improved social welfare. Yet for them, it was not a government’s austerity that was bleeding the country dry, but the “cancer” presented by the city’s Sudanese and Eritrean refugees. As political commentator Ilian Lior noted, if Netanyahu succeeded in whipping up a racial storm, he could reclaim the Likud support he was in danger of losing.

The Red Workers Association of Hapoel Tel Aviv fans was initially created to help young fans with their homework and older ones find jobs. Following Israel’s shelling of Gaza in 2006, however, it swiftly mutated into a politicised group seeking to aid Israel’s minorities and refugees. As Aloon Raab has documented, that year it began funding Bnei Sakhnin’s first girls team – a courageous act in a town where patriarchal hierarchy still reigns in the household.

The Red Workers also began to sponsor a local shelter for Eritrean and Sudanese refugees: the African Refugee Development Centre (ARDC). By 2010, the fans had partnered with Tel Aviv’s Block of Social Peripheries to help residents of unrecognised Bedouin villages have their civil rights recognised by the Israeli government.

When Likud ministers Danny Danon and Miri Regev arrived in Hatikva in August 2011 to add to rhetoric that had already seen refugees labelled as “cancerous infiltrators”, the Red Workers sprung into action. Through the Block of Social Peripheries, they contacted the veteran peace activists Reuven Abergel and Gerardo Leibner, who managed to organise a meeting between a committee from a local refugee camp and Hatikva.

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As a result of this meeting, the protestors agreed to divert their planned demonstration route so that it did not pass the local Lewinsky Refugee Centre. This alone was enough to dampen racial tensions for the moment and force Netanyahu to establish an investigative committee led by the economist Manuel discuss public sector reforms. Sadly, the small part played by the Red Workers was not enough to permanently stem the prospect of violence. The largest race riots in Tel Aviv’s history occurred in Hatikva the following May.

“Welcome to the rage of Jerusalem,” Israeli public intellectual Yossi Klein recently declared. Violent hate crimes and public lynchings have reached historic levels in the city. Whereas in 2014 an average of 200 Molotov cocktails were launched through the Jerusalem night each month, today the figure is 5,000. The Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, has admitted that targeted assignations of minorities are at their highest ever level.

Hapoel Ketamon has made significant levels to alleviate the plight of Jerusalem’s besieged populations. The club offers immersive language sessions to refugees and famously paid for private security guards to protect Arab employees attacked by Beitar fans at a Jerusalem mall in 2012.

They recently held a charity tournament at the Holot migrant detention centre in the Negev Desert in protest of 41 children having been interned there. A similar campaign has been undertaken with regard to LGBT rights. In 2013, the club began publishing a fanzine called HaYatzia HaAdom (The Red Tribune0 in which it called on the Israeli Football Association to take a stand regarding LGBT+ rights.

Yet these efforts have not prevented Hapoel Ketamon Jerusalem from knowing its share of tragedy. Sixteen-year-old Shira Banki was standing in front of the club’s representatives at the 2015 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade when she was brutally stabbed to death by the ultra-Orthodox activist Yishai Schlissel. In response, the club renamed its girls teams Hapoel Shira Banki, with its corner flags now sporting the LGBT rainbow. Last year, the club honoured Ethiopian refugee Haftom Zarhum, who was lynched in public in Be’er Sheva after being mistaken for a terrorist because of the colour of his skin.

In 2018, the World Development Fund labelled internet forums as harmful to democracy, giving rise as they do to a world in which hate speech and populism drowns out the voice of minorities. Yet, as academics Orr Levantal and Yair Galily have remarked, what is fascinating about Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Katamon is how their fans have their clubs’ websites to create a mature form of deliberative democracy, hosting discussions on gender, political economy and Israel’s interventions in Gaza.

Football fandom and political citizenship have always been intertwined in Israel. Ask historians for the origins of Likud’s rise to power in 1977 and many will point you to Beitar Jerusalem’s domestic cup triumph of the year before, the success of a club’s virile fan base mirroring a country’s new strongman government. Similarly, examine the new millennium’s Second Intifada and you find its causes mirrored in the fortunes of Hapoel Taibe and Bnei Sakhnin, neither of whose Arab fans Israeli society was prepared to fully accept.

Perhaps today we are seeing a third revolution in football fandom and citizenship in Israel. In a country where labour activism is softly dying out and the political left is absent from the electoral landscape, football clubs are offering a new avenue for social change. From Beit Hanina to Be’er Sheva, they are interrupting the everyday rhythm of a besieged population’s everyday suffering. It’s needed more than ever.

By Alexander Shea @alexjshea

Main photo by Alan Amper

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