Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Off Sides: What media stories about the Beitar Jerusalem controversy miss about Israeli soccer

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Or Avi-Guy

Soccer in Israel is the most common denominator in Israeli society-everyone loves soccer; Jews, Arabs, secularists, religious, young, old, new immigrants, "Sabraim" (Israel-born), Ashkenazis, Sephardis - everyone. Much like Melburnians and AFL, when two Israeli strangers meet, within two minutes the conversation will veer towards soccer, and enthusiastic discussions over the weekend games shortly follows. No one asks "do you like soccer?" People simply ask "which team?"

As in many other countries, soccer-fever is a uniting passion in Israel, despite the "bitter rivalries" between teams, and a much needed outlet for tensions and emotions in a volatile region. At the end of the day, everyone knows that - in the words of a famous Israeli song - "it's only sport."

However, throughout history and around the world, some soccer clubs have had a bad reputation as hotbeds for nationalism, xenophobia and racism. Wikipedia lists numerous incidents in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and in many other countries, including Australia. As the Wikipedia list makes it clear, Israeli soccer has not been immune from these trends - but is also very far from the worst offender. Moreover, Israeli soccer has been pro-active in addressing racism, joining "Football Against Racism in Europe" and fining clubs whose fans indulge in racist taunting of other teams.

Furthermore, Israeli soccer players, playing either for Israeli teams or European teams, have at times been the subjects of abuse and racist and antisemitic chants when playing worldwide. For instance, Israel players who play for European clubs have been repeatedly banned from entering Dubai when their teams played there. In fact, an example occurred just this week - with Swansea player Itay Shechter banned at the last minute from joining his teammates at a training camp in Dubai. But this racism is so routine it almost never makes the news.

Lately, racism in soccer made headlines after a decision by the management of the Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem to introduce two new players to the team, both Chechen Muslims- Gabriel Kadiev and Zaur Sadayev. Some stories in the Australian media implied that Beitar Jerusalem is a racist club which refuses to allow Arabs and Muslims players in the team's uniform, and that somehow this reflects racism in Israeli society at large. This kind of commentary shows a poor understanding of Beitar Jerusalem fans and the club's history, and misrepresents both Israeli soccer history and Israeli society.

While some of Beitar fans were very unhappy with the club's decision, and explicitly object to the inclusion of Arab and Muslim players in the team, their ugly reaction was immediately and heavily condemned by the club management, former Prime Minister and Jerusalem Mayor (and, a lifelong Beitar fan) Ehud Olmert, current Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barekat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even more importantly - it was condemned in the stadium by other Beitar fans. In fact - it has long been the case that the majority of Beitar fans have distanced themselves from the minority of fans known for making racist remarks, commonly known collectively as "La Familia." They choose to sit in different sections of the stadium and do not partake in the angry chants. But this time, instead of the usual passive rejection of the "La Familia" actions, fans gathered to actively send a different message to the new players, to the management and to the world- they opened facebook groups called "Beitar- unconditional love" and "Beitar Jerusalem without racism" and organised displays of support for club management and players, where they cheered and held up signs in support of the new players, and against the expressions of racism by some of the club's fans during a potentially explosive match against the Arab team Bnei Sakhnin. Meanwhile, the racists were expelled from the match by security.

Instead of being portrayed as a racist club, Beitar Jerusalem should be commended for standing up to the 'hardcore' fans and introducing the new Muslim players- thus sending a message of tolerance that sport should transcend ethnicity and religion, while combatting any expressions of racism from "La Familia". Beitar's management had tried to introduce Muslim and Arab players in 2001-2002 and again in 2004, with only limited success, but their continuous attempts to overcome opposition from a minority of fans is praise-worthy.

If the minority of Beitar fans should not be seen as representative of the club or the rest of its fans, it certainly does not represent Israeli society. Arab and Muslim players compete in all the Israeli soccer leagues, both in Arab clubs and in mixed clubs, most notably, but by no means exclusively, in big name teams Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa. They are appreciated and loved by the fans. If anyone wants a sign of the attitudes in Israeli society at large to Arab soccer players, have a look at the Israeli national team: Israeli-Arabs have been playing in Israel's national uniform since the 1970s. The first Israeli-Arab on the national team was legendary Rifaat "Jimmy" Turk, followed by Najwan Ghrayib, Walid Badir, Salim Tuama (when he played for Hapoel Tel-Aviv fans used to sing "Salim, Tuama, Salim- we love you"), Abbas Suan, Beram Kayal, Mohammed Ghadir and Zahi Armali, and the list goes on. Their numbers keep on increasing, and their achievements on the field give great pride to the entire country.

The truth, if anyone cares to see it, is that, overall, soccer has been one of the great success stories of Jewish-Arab integration in Israel. The actions of a few hundred Beitar Jerusalem diehards, swiftly condemned by everyone including within their own club, should not be allowed to distort or obscure that reality.


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