OWhen can an organization be said to be racist? Is Beitar Jerusalem a racist club? While there is a large group of openly racist fans, the Israeli Premier League club now and sporadically in the past try to fight them. “Here they are, the country’s racist team,” they sang for many years. But they are a minority among Beitar supporters. Were English clubs racist entities in the 1980s when fans threw bananas at black players? Are they racist now because some fans abuse online gamers?
Beitar, six times national champion, is not a racist club but an organization deeply infected by racism. Many owners and presidents have tried to fight the racists and have paid a personal price. If Beitar could get rid of racism and racists, they would, but it’s getting harder and harder. It could have been done easier in the past, but now it feels like a Herculean task.
Most fans would like to have a normal club, but they can’t decide. When Aviram Bruchian, captain of Beitar in 2009 and nephew of club legend Uri Malmilian, said he would be happy to play alongside an Arab player, he was summoned to an urgent meeting with La Familia, the group far-right supporters of the club. The following day, he posted the following message: “I am sorry for the pain I caused the fans and I understand that I hurt them. It is important to me that they know that I am with them in all circumstances. I’m not the one who makes such decisions but if the fans don’t want an Arab player, there won’t be an Arab player in Beitar.
When those kinds of fans decide club policy, you have a serious problem. Just listen to their songs:
The witnesses are the stars in the sky
For the racism that’s like a dream
The whole world will testify
There will be no Arabs in the team!
I don’t care how many and how they will be killed
Eliminating the Arabs makes me happy
boy, girl or old
Will bury every Arab deep in the ground
It didn’t happen overnight. Beitar, which draws crowds of around 10,000, was formed as a right-wing liberal movement club and during the British Mandate years there was an alliance between Beitar rejects and Arab clubs. They never made the decision to become the hotbed of rabid anti-Arabs. It would be too simple. It is a story of radicalization through neglect, of the club being open to political abuse, of being turned a blind eye by the party and the state.
David Frenkiel was behind the first Beitar website. He used to write about Beitar in the sports magazine Shem Hamisehak and says, “The anti-Arab wave started after the terrorist attacks in the second half of the 90s. The reaction from the media and the left led to a childish reaction.
“The more the fans get attacked, the more the taunts increase. I’m not sure everyone who chanted was racist but that’s how it is in the stands. You’re shouting the exact same chants as the guy next to you. people blamed the normative mob for not standing up to the racists with a ridiculous claim Who wants to take on these people?So after a while, that became the flag that the fans were waving.
The growing presence of Arab clubs and players in the league has made it easier to foul the air with such chants. He did not go unanswered. “Death to the Arabs” was answered with “Death to the Jews”. And then Hapoel Tel Aviv fans joined in. Their image was originally anti-basketball club Maccabi Tel Aviv, the prudish, moralizing, smug and clean-faced club of aggressive Israeli nationalism.
During their glory years in European competitions, Hapoel fans carried a banner saying: “We represent Hapoel, not Israel”.
For Beitar, they had a treat:
Put Jerusalem in Jordan
Give it to the Palestinians
In the lines of 1967
Split it into two
Give it to the Palestinians
There’s no need for Teddy [Stadium, Beitar’s home]
Neither for the Beitar
Not the Kotel [Western Wall] and the Knesset [Israeli parliament]
Everything in this town is redundant
Yet rival media and fans didn’t create the racist problem, they just added fuel. Beitar’s fan demographics are similar to many other teams, but the problem has developed between them for various reasons. The most obvious is that when you have Arab players in your team, it stops being a problem. All the big clubs had Arab-Israeli players and thus avoided the problem.
Bnei Yehuda suffered from the same ‘no Arabs’ disease, but Eli Ohana held firm as manager and relieved the club of this inconvenience. Beitar had many negotiations over the years with Arab-Israeli players but never managed to sign the deal. They must regret it now.
And there was the encouragement from the upper echelons.
“I remember sitting in a Teddy and saying [Jerusalem mayor and future prime minister] Ehud Olmert that what is happening on the East Stand is not good and by closing our mouths we are giving them legitimization,” said Ruvi Rivlin, former club president, minister and president of Israel between 2014 and 2021, in the movie Forever Pure. “’You are the leaders of a community, of the government, say something. But they ignored it so as not to anger their supporters.
“We made a mistake by not stopping him at that time. We thought it was just nonsense that would go away. We were wrong,” he said on another occasion.
In the late 1990s, half the government sat in Teddy’s VIP box pretending to be fans and ignoring the chants.
When Benjamin Netanyahu waved to cheering supporters after the 1998 title in the town square, he was unfazed by calls of “Death to Arabs”. He never did this when addressing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left-wing leaders or Arab citizens. He could only hear adulation.
And there was worse. Itamar Ben Gvir, the young man who took Rabin’s car hood ornament, played at the club as a child and became an admirer of Baruch Goldstein, the assassin of the Patriarch’s Cave. He was an admirer of Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the Jewish Supremacy Party and member of Knesset between 1984 and 1988. Ben Gvir became a frequent visitor to Teddy.
Kahane was the most extreme of the extreme right. He had proposals such as separate beaches for Jews and non-Jews, and a ban on non-Jews taking on a political role of power or being able to vote for the Knesset. He also said non-Jews should not be allowed to live in Jerusalem.
Kahane’s yellow and black fist flag was displayed at Beitar matches, although the move was made illegal after the 1994 massacre in Hebron. The leaders of the neo-Kahanists made a pilgrimage to Teddy and Sakhnin [an Arab club] in busy matches between the two teams. Teddy has over the years become the place where Likud politicians have shown themselves. No wonder La Familia feels covered by the government.
This is an edited excerpt from On the Border: The Rise and Decline of the Most Political Club in the World, by Shaul Adar, published May 16 by Pitch Publishing