Soccer and Societal Bigotry – Israeli Style

Soccer and Societal Bigotry – Israeli Style

Alan Wieder

Two months ago when A. C. Milan star, Kevin-Prince Boateng protested racist chants from opposing fans of Pro Patria, the video of him kicking the game ball into the crowd and walking off the field went viral. Surprisingly, the critical mass of the opponent’s fans cheered Boetang. Then, his teammates and coaches, those of Pro Patria, as well as the referees, walked off the pitch with him. After the incident there was global support as well as demands for FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to take substantive, rather than public relations action, against racism in the sport.

Now we have another shrill example from Israel where there are racist protests because Beitar, a Premier League (Ligat Ha’al) team in Jerusalem, have signed two Muslim players from Chechnyan Russian Premier League team Terek Grozny. Beitar has a long history of racism and xenophobia, but they are not solely responsible for discrimination in the country’s soccer society. Racism in Israeli soccer corresponds directly to the bigotry that is prevalent in Israeli society. In Israel, however, the racism is magnified because of the discrimination and oppression of Palestinians, a practice that some people around the World, including the prestigious Bertrand Russell Tribunal, refer to as apartheid.

Beitar Jerusalem has a long, nationalist, Zionist history that matches the political foundation of the club. The latest events, however, have brought more light on the crass, oppressive, and of course racist reality of the team and segments of Israeli society. The Beitar movement was founded in Latvia by right wing, Zionist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923. According to Beitar’s webpage: “The new youth movement aimed at educating its members with a military and nationalistic spirit.” The organization grew in Eastern Europe and was responsible for emigrating approximately 40,000 people to Palestine by the 1940s. In addition, Beitar partnered with the underground army, Irgun, in attacks on the Palestinian population before, during, and following World War II. Beitar became affiliated with the Herut political party and then later Likud. And like its political opposition, Hapoel (Workers’ Federation), Beitar started a football club. Founded in 1936, the team became successful in the late 1970s under the leadership of Uri Malmilian who is sometimes referred to as the Israeli Pele. Because of the club’s political foundation and history, supporters have included Prime Minister Netanyahu, neo-fascist Avigdor Liberman, and Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is a season ticket holder.

The teams’ history, however, has been racist and exclusionary. In 76 years there has never been an Arab player, in spite of the fact that Arabs play on teams throughout all three divisions of Israeli soccer. In addition, the team has signed only a handful of Muslims and in some of those cases the religion of the player was hidden by team management. A decade ago a Nigerian, Muslim player, Ibrahim Nadallah, was signed to play with Beitar Jerusalem. In correspondence to the anti-Muslim and racist dispositions of both Israeli society and soccer, the team’s fans harassed Nadallah viciously. Nadallah left before completing his initial season in Israel.

During his stay at Beitar Jerusalem, Ibrahim Nadallah endured chants of kushi, the ‘n’ word in Hebrew. The team’s fans besieged him with monkey calls as they threw bananas at him on the pitch. They delivered the same derision for black, Israeli star, Baruch Dego, also born Nigerian but adopted by an Israeli woman when he was two years old. If more venomous behavior is possible, the Beitar Jerusalem fans have saved their worst vitriolic for Arab players. One particular case involved Israeli national team player, Salim Toamah, who is an Israeli-Arab. After Beitar Jerusalem beat his Tel Aviv team for the league championship in 2008, Beitar fans sang the following words to the melody of an Israeli folk song that promotes the civil rights of Israeli-Arabs:

“What’s Salim doing here? I don’t know. What’s going on here I ask? From all around me I hear, Toamah here is the Land of Israel! This is the Jewish state! I hate you Salim Toamah, I hate all the Arabs.”

There are many more racist, anti-Arab incidents revolving around Beitar Jerusalem. How can you even begin to address this hatred when fans still take pride in a pre-game chant that includes: “Here it comes, the racist team of the country.” While there are Israelis, mostly on the left, that fight and challenge the oppression of Palestinians by their country, some of the country’s critics believe that it is getting more difficult to confront Israeli racism and bigotry. Hebrew University historian Moshe Zimmerman worries that bigotry is more pronounced – both in the country and at Beitar Jerusalem.

“People in Israel usually try to locate Beitar Jerusalem as some kind of the more extreme fringe; this is a way to overcome the embarrassment. The fact is that the Israeli society on the whole is getting more racist, or at least more ethnocentric, and this is an expression.”

The recent incident at Beitar Jerusalem in some ways parallels Professor Zimmerman’s point of view. In other ways, it points to both nominal and substantive resistance. In January 2013, the team owner and Russian oligarch, Arcadi Gaydamak, announced that he was signing two Chechnyan players from the Russian Premier League team Terek Grozny. The players, 19-year-old midfielder Dzhabrail Kadiyev and 23-year-old striker Zaur Sadayev are both Muslims. The announcement of the signings came just before the Israeli election and the reaction from at least some of the Beitar Jerusalem fan base was swift and venomous. Criticism regarding the actions of the bigots came as both window dressing and serious confrontation. The fans’ racism was evident at two Beitar Jerusalem matches just after the signings of Kadiyev and Sadayev. On the Saturday after Gaydamak signed the players, a day that also happened to be the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, fans’ bigotry imploded on players from rival Hapoel Tel Aviv. While one might question how knowledgeable Beitar Jerusalem hooligans are in terms of a detailed history of their own club or Hapoel, they do understand the historical essence and know that their team was founded within the Zionist right while there opponents come from the opposite “progressive” Zionist tradition.

Beitar fans welcomed Hapoel with a banner “Beitar forever pure” and chants of “Death to Arabs,” “Death to Muslims,” and “No entry to Arabs.” None of this, of course, was new for Beitar fans, however, there appeared to be more intensity because of the forthcoming addition of Muslim players. The brunt of their attacks, on this particular day, was hurled at Nigerian born Hapoel player Toto Tamuz, who scored a goal in the match.* Both Tamuz and his Nigerian teammate, Eric Djemba Djemba, were met with the same racist chants cited earlier in the article. Being called a Kushi is the norm for African players at Beitar Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium.

There was also more subtle, political, racism at Teddy Stadium on the eve of both the Israeli elections and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Two right wing politicians, Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad, attended the game in a clear attempt to garner the votes of Beitar Jerusalem hooligans. Neither man was elected to the Knesset! After the match, the actions of Beitar fans were condemned but that did not stop the fans from even worse displays of racism and pure bigotry two days later when Maccabi Umm al-Fahm came to play at Teddy Stadium. The declaration of Hapoel Tel Aviv players after the game might be the most forward reaching and impactful response in terms of Israeli football. Backed by management, and in correspondence to Kevin-Prince Boateng’s stand cited at the beginning of this article, the players announced that they would walk off the pitch if they were met with the same racism that they experienced from Beitar supporters.

Both the coach of Beitar Jerusalem, Eli Cohen, and the owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, spoke out against the bigotry of the team’s fans. However, Gaydamak ignored past and present bigotry and oppression from both his team and Israeli society and blamed the racist violence on the stupid acts of a few youngsters.

Unfortunately, racism and bigotry in Israeli society and thus Israeli soccer is not just the “stupid acts of a few youngsters.” Likud politicians who are among the fan base of Beitar Jerusalem also castigated the hooligans. But like Gaydamak, there was neither depth nor breadth in their declarations. Current Speaker of the Knesset, Reuvin Rivlin, chastised the fans saying: “Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Imagine the outcry if groups in England or Germany said that Jews could not play for them.” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also condemned Beitar Jerusalem fans, but he praised the club for speaking out against them. And although he did globalize the issue in terms of bigotry, he misrepresented the problem as belonging solely to a segment Beitar Jerusalem fans. Finally, he crafted his statements to question how the actions of the hooligans would affect Jews.

“As we do not want Jews to be abused around the world simply because they are Jews… we must value Muslims and Christians playing on our sports teams. This is not just a soccer matter, but an international Jewish issue… The whole world watched Jerusalem’s behavior, and that racism among Beitar fans hurt the whole city.”

The strongest statement came from former Prime Minister Olmert who criticized the racism as “hatred, contempt, disgust, and intolerance of the darkest kind.” Adding, “This issue should concern us all. If we do not remove these racists from our stadium and disconnect them from the team, we will be just like them.”

While it is difficult to argue with Olmert’s condemnation, it too implies that there is a small problem to fix. But, the Israeli society he describes is far from the present reality in terms of bigotry, racism, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian dispositions and actions.

Two days after the Hapoel match, Beitar’s racist fans were in full force when Maccabi Umm al-Fahm, a predominantly Israeli-Arab team, came to play in Jerusalem. Police were stationed around the neighborhood and some of the better-known Beitar hooligans were barred from the stadium. Ironically, the first banner seen at the stadium read, “Beitar fans against violence and racism.” Although hopeful, it was dwarfed by other signs and incessant, bigoted chanting. Back from the previous match was “Beitar pure forever,” reminiscent of the same types of placards seen regarding Jews in Nazi Germany.

A Beitar banner extolling tolerance is lost in the sea of racist Beitar fandom.  If non-racist Israeli Beitar fans the exception, then, what does that tell us about entrenched racism in Israel?

A Beitar banner extolling tolerance would be lost in the sea of racist Beitar fandom. If non-racist Israeli Beitar fans are the exception, then, what does that tell us about entrenched racism in Israel and the prospects for ending Apartheid?

Before the match, Umm al-Fahm’s coach, Samir Issa, had publicly stated that his team would leave the field if fans cursed the Prophet Muhammad. Issa also said: “It was important for both the teams to cooperate in a “supreme effort” to change the stereotypes and make sure that no problems arose.” The Beitar chants were definitively racist and anti-Arab. It must be said, however, that the 1,000 Arab fans attending the game, segregated by a fence in a corner of the stadium, answered abusive taunts. One of those fans said: “They’re always cursing the Prophet Muhammad, so we came to answer back.” For some reason, however, Beitar did not present their entire repertoire and there was no mention of the Prophet. But Beitar Jerusalem fans were clear about their racism as they left the stadium. Comments included: “Arabs are impure people” and “all Palestinians are terrorists.”

Might it be that for the Beitar Jerusalem hooligans as well as other Israeli people, “all Palestinians are terrorists” equates to an oppressive, colonial, anti-Muslim, and possibly apartheid disposition that is part of the Israeli psyche that is promoted by the beliefs and actions of Israel’s current government. And that said, the issue of bigotry and racism within Israeli soccer cannot be divorced from the same in the whole of Israeli society. In an article entitled “Some Fear a Soccer Team’s Racist Fans Hold a Mirror Up to Israel,” Jodi Rudoren writes that the current government enacted at least 20 new laws that discriminate against Arab-Israeli citizens including neighborhood housing covenants. In addition, the Coalition Against Racism reported that during 2011 and 2012 racist incidents in Israel had risen by close to 30 percent.

There is no question that the overt racism of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans corresponds to the bigotry that exists in Israeli society. The team fan club, La Familia, is representative of the far right anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Palestinian segment of Israeli society and of course needs to be dealt with. But it also might be that the Beitar fans who are softer, or its more famous fans who condemn the racism but ignore the societal reality, and actually promote the oppression of Palestine through their support and facilitation of settlements and IDF violent oppression are the bigger problem. Unfortunately, Israeli leaders, just as other leaders throughout the world, do not make the society-sports connection. In Israel it is more stark because Palestinian oppression is both harsh and deadly – might the Beitar Jerusalem racism help us make the link.

Alan Wieder is an oral historian who lives in Portland, Oregon. His forthcoming book, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid will be available in June from Monthly Review Press.

* Even more ironically while Beitar Jerusalem was not penalized for the actions of their fans, Tamuz was exiled from the game by the referee when he celebrated scoring his goal. Not only was the referee not in tune with the racist atmosphere, sports radio in Israel reported that the taunts toward Tamuz were not racist but rather in response to him being a former Beitar player. How did they explain the treatment of Djemba Djemba?

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