The dangerous obsession with Beitar Jerusalem

Israel's Beitar Jerusalem soccer team in a practice. Credit: 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.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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.

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Posted on February 24, 2013 and filed under Israel, Opinion.