Peace dividend? Emirati joins fight for Israeli soccer club’s soul.

Peace dividend? Emirati joins fight for Israeli soccer club’s soul.

Why We Wrote This

Even as some right-wing Israeli politicians have capitalized on anti-Arab racism, the nation’s soccer world has battled it. The Israel-UAE normalization deal has opened a new anti-racist front, in Jerusalem.

Nir Elias/Reuters/File

Fans of Beitar Jerusalem shout slogans during a match against Bnei Sakhnin, at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem in 2013. There was heightened security at the match after four fans were arraigned in connection with incitement against the team’s recruitment of Muslim players, perhaps the height of Beitar fans’ racism.

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January 25, 2021

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When Moshe Hogeg bought the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club in 2018, he promised to put it on “a new path,” breaking with the anti-Arab racism of its loudest fans and finally signing an Arab player. He has yet to do so, but last month he announced the purchase of 50% of the team by an Emirati investor. The pair hailed their partnership as the embodiment of Israel-Arab normalization.

Israeli soccer and an increasingly visible portion of Beitar fans have been battling, even shouting down, the racist fans. It’s a struggle for the soul of a sports club, many of whose fans were raised on a blend of nationalist politics, bigotry, and socioeconomic resentments.

“There’s been more of a spotlight on racism in soccer than ever, and there’s been more denunciations,” says Gal Karpel, who directs an anti-racism stadium monitoring project. Clubs are now penalized for racist incidents in the stands, which have dropped dramatically.

The club’s sale was embraced by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in a public letter of congratulations to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan. “The deal is to show the nations that Jews and Muslims can work together, and be friends and live in peace and harmony,” the Emirati told Israeli TV.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL

Omer Himi was raised a die-hard Beitar Jerusalem soccer fan from a working-class Jewish family in a border town. As a teen, he would drive hours to matches and chant anti-Arab songs – part of the weekly repertoire of stadium cheers by the Beitar faithful.

“I used to sit in the stands and yell, ‘Death to Arabs,’” says Mr. Himi, a marketing executive. “I was a fan in a soccer stadium, thousands of fans are singing, and you’re a part of it. You didn’t take it seriously,” he says, by way of explanation.

“When I grew up,” he adds, however, “I understood that yelling ‘Death to Arabs’ is something that shouldn’t be uttered, especially in a country like Israel [living in the aftermath of] the Holocaust.”

Yet for Beitar, a team linked to the forebears of the right-wing Likud party, defiant racist fan culture in recent decades has been part of its brand. Hard-line fans have ensured Beitar has never fielded an Arab player, and they rebelled against the signing of a pair of Muslim Chechen players eight years ago.

“All soccer is political in Israel,” says Maya Zinshtein, who made a documentary film on how Beitar’s notorious racist fan group, La Familia, destroyed the season for the club and eventually pushed the Chechens out. “In a strange way, this club made this idea of being a non-Arab, or a non-Muslim club part of their identity.”


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So when team owner Moshe Hogeg announced a deal last month for an Emirati businessman to buy a 50% stake – a fruit of the newly normalized ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that were part of the U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords” – the focus turned to the Beitar faithful and whether they would lead another uprising like in 2013.

Struggle for team’s soul

However, much has changed since then; 2013 was both a low point, and a turning point. Even as anti-Arab racism has flourished among Israel’s dominant political right wing, Israeli soccer and an increasingly visible portion of Beitar fans have been trying to break the racist traditions. It’s a struggle for the soul of the sports club that touts itself as “Israel’s team,” many of whose fans come from a milieu that blends nationalist politics, bigotry, and socioeconomic and ethnic resentments.

Israel has tried to follow the anti-racism campaigns of the English Premier League and the Union of European Football Associations. Its soccer association now penalizes clubs for racist incidents in the stands. Team owners have tried to crack down by confiscating stadium paraphernalia of misbehaving fans.

“There’s been more of a spotlight on racism in soccer than ever, and there’s been more denunciations,” says Gal Karpel, who directs an anti-racism stadium monitoring project at the New Israel Fund, a progressive Israeli nongovernmental organization.

After buying Beitar in 2018, Mr. Hogeg promised to put the club on “a new path” and finally sign an Arab player. Though he has yet to do so, he and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan touted their new partnership as the embodiment of Israel-Arab normalization. The sale was embraced by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in a public letter of congratulations to Sheikh Hamad.

“The deal is to show the nations that Jews and Muslims can work together, and be friends and live in peace and harmony,” Sheikh Hamad told Israeli television soon after the agreement was announced. Beitar’s anti-Arab fans, he said, had been “brainwashed.”

In the weeks following the deal, Mr. Himi attended demonstrations and posted on Facebook fan forums to push back against those who have lobbied against the partnership.

Ariel Schalit/AP

Moshe Hogeg, co-owner of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, at the team training ground in Jerusalem, Dec. 27, 2020. After bringing in a wealthy Emirati investor as co-owner, Mr. Hogeg says he is determined to remove the stain of racism from his team. Beitar is the only major Israeli team never to have signed an Arab player.

La Familia and others have mounted their own demonstrations. Interviewed on Israeli television, Eli Garbi, a longtime fan opposed to the deal, accused the UAE of trying to plant a “stake” in Jerusalem. Beitar’s symbols – the candelabra from the ancient Jewish Temple and the Lion of Judah – are the same as Israel’s, he said.

“Not everything comes down to money,” he said. “I’m not ready for them to sell Jewish values, Jewish symbols, and the symbols of the state.”

Mr. Himi says the argument is an anti-Arab dog whistle.

“The Beitar fans against this deal say, ‘What about our values?’ But if the new owner was named Philip from France, they would never speak like that,” he says. “But because it’s Hamad, so suddenly, they say, ‘What about values?’ and ‘What about tradition?’ Beitar Jerusalem will always be Beitar Jerusalem.”

Bar Karamani, a supporter of the UAE deal, posting on the Facebook fan forum Beitar.net, argued: “We need to welcome them with love. It seems both theirs and our goals are for the team.”

Tribal loyalties

Unlike sports fandom in the United States, Israel’s soccer loyalties reflect the country’s tribal political divisions. Beitar is the name of the youth movement associated with Herut, the political forerunner of Likud, which formed Israel’s parliamentary opposition for the first three decades of statehood.

The team became a favorite of the Middle Eastern Jewish working class, or mizrahim, who mostly came to Israel after its establishment and were sent by the European Ashkenazi Labor Party establishment to far-off development towns referred to as “the periphery.”

“Beitar symbolized a lot of anger and resentment,” says Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist at the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “Beitar represented the underdogs, and the outsiders.”

It was a birthright for Mr. Himi, who grew up in a “Beitarist” household.

“You grow up as a Beitar Jerusalem fan, you are a mizrahi from the periphery, and your ‘enemy’ are … the Ashkenazi elites,” he says.

Turning point

The turning point came in 2013, when La Familia set out to expel the Chechens – harassing the players, burning the team clubhouse, and filling the stands with racist slogans.

Droves of fans like Mr. Himi stayed home for a time. Beitar’s would-be integration moment boomeranged. Instead, La Familia and other extremist fans took center stage. Fans like Mr. Himi realized they needed to make a break with the club’s racist traditions.

“That was a red line. Every fan needed to confront the question, ‘What side are you on?’ Are you a racist or not a racist. There’s no middle,” Mr. Himi says. “Because until then, many fans were in the middle.”

Fans began shouting down racist chants in the stands and on social media forums. Confrontations erupted in the stadium within the Beitar section. “In the last four years, when they would sing racist songs, most fans would respond with boos,” says Mr. Himi.

According to the New Israel Fund’s monitoring effort, during the 2018-19 season, racist incidents at Beitar games plummeted to nearly zero. 

“Racism hasn’t ended, but it has declined significantly,” says Mr. Karpel.

However, years of incendiary chants have made the change hard to perceive for some Arab fans.

“Sometimes a small group ruins the beautiful picture of sports. Not all of Beitar fans are this way,” says Ehsan Khalily, an Israeli-Arab sports educator and a fan who has been on the receiving end of the chants at games. “It’s not easy. It’s very difficult. It hurts the feeling of connection to society. The racism directed at us strikes us in our hearts.”

The power of success

Despite the excitement over integrating Beitar through an Emirati partnership, the fate of the sale is unclear. The deal might be rejected by Israel’s football association, which wants to get more transparency about Sheikh Hamad’s finances.

If the Emirati co-owner can help make the team into a title contender, it might go a long way to help turn the tide to push Beitar’s racist constituency to the margins, says Mr. Pfeffer at Haaretz. That would weaken resistance to integrating the squad with an Arab player.

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Mr. Hini says such a decision will inevitably face pushback from Beitar’s extremist supporters. Old prejudices die hard.

“I guess [hard-liners] will curse him, and use racist songs. Hopefully, it will not descend into violence, but I hope that the majority of fans will stand against them. This time we won’t leave the field.”

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