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As Israeli Soccer Season Opens, the World’s Eyes Are on One Team: Beitar Jerusalem

But the team’s racist episodes are the exception in a league full of Jews and Arabs competing peacefully, says a former player

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(AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)
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In 2007, I moved from Washington, D.C., where I grew up, to Israel, where I was signed to play professional soccer for Hapoel Herzliya, a modest club outside of Tel Aviv. My first game was in Mashhad, an Arab town three miles north of Nazareth. I had never heard of it, or of the Arab team, Ihud Mashhad, that called it home. As an outsider, having played soccer only in the United States, I had no idea what to expect when I walked out onto the field.

I thought it would be a game just like the thousands I had played growing up, but this was more intense. The crowd had done its homework on me. The announcer, a home-team partisan, started chanting my name over the loudspeakers. The crowd joined in, taunting me for the first half. I wasn’t insulted by their jeers: They weren’t threatening, and it was nothing more than the standard stuff of sports. But eventually, it got under my skin. In the second half, a ball was lobbed toward where I was defending our goal. I froze. “Move!” I told myself. By the time my feet responded, it was too late. My hand slapped against the ball, earning Ihud Mashhad a penalty kick. The crowd erupted, celebrating their two-pronged victory: a call in their favor, and one that came at the expense of the player they’d been picking on.

It didn’t last; in the last few minutes, we scored a goal for the win. My teammates on offense tackled each other, crying out in the bliss of victory. The home crowd was subdued from that point on, resigned to losing the match. Before leaving the field, we shook hands with the Mashhad players, each side mutually congratulating their opponents’ efforts. Looking around at my team, made up mostly of Jewish players, I realized that while to me, raised on constant news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seemed extraordinary, to everyone else on the field, it was a perfectly ordinary way to end the game.

The Israeli soccer league stands alone in the Middle East for employing Jews, Muslims, and Christians side by side as coaches, players, and referees. Across the six divisions of the official soccer governing body’s league system—which includes at least 200 teams ranging from full professional to part-time semi-pro—there are approximately 70 clubs based out of Arab cities, composed largely of Arab players. Week in, week out, they compete with almost no problems. When the season opens this weekend, Jews and Arabs from one team will play against Jews and Arabs from another club. At the end of the matches, most of the players will shake hands and hug—embracing each other as brothers in sport, rather than cowering away in hatred, as the rest of the world might expect.

These men, most of whom earn little money, compete for the love of the game. They don’t put on theatrics for the cameras because, for the most part, Division 4 Israeli soccer is not televised. So, when you see them congratulating each other at the end of a match, it’s out of sincerity.

Yet the world’s eyes will be fixed on Beitar Jerusalem, the club of Israel’s capital, which is notorious for attracting fans who espouse an extreme right-wing, nationalist ideology—so much so that when Beitar Jerusalem signed two Muslim players from Chechnya last season, incensed fans unfurled a banner during a game that read “Beitar, forever pure.” After that game, mobs of supporters attacked Arab workers in a shopping mall. Fans then set fire to part of the club’s training complex. Some even called the personal phone of then-head coach, Eli Cohen, leaving him death threats.

The most extreme Beitar fans view themselves as the last standing pillar of what the Jewish state should look like. They believe the club belongs to them, personally, and view it as their responsibility to protect its sanctity. By extension, they view their cause as defending the sanctity of Jerusalem. Beitar—which is historically affiliated with the right-wing Betar youth movement established by Ze’ev Jabotinsky—has an ugly history of violent fan behavior and public protests against Arabs and Muslims. In 2005, after Abbas Suan, an Arab Israeli, scored an important goal for Israel against Ireland in a World Cup qualifier, Beitar fans greeted him the next week at a regular league match with a banner reading, “Abbas Suan: You do not represent us.”

The move to integrate the squad with Muslim players was led by owner Arkady Gaydamak, a wealthy Russian-Israeli businessman, and Itzik Kornfein, the general manager and a longtime player for the team. Both remained committed to the cause, signing the players despite vehement protests from the Beitar Jerusalem faithful. The supporters group known as La Familia—an intimidating name picked in reference to the Italian mob—was at the forefront of the protests. A well-organized association of fans with its own dues and memberships, La Familia orchestrated a walkout in protest of the Muslim players, Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev. When their members did attend matches, they cursed and verbally harassed their own team and even cheered when their side conceded goals to their opponents.

Today not a single major member of the club leadership that brought in the Muslim athletes remains with Beitar Jerusalem. This June, Gaydamak sold the team to Israeli businessman Eli Tabib—who has in turn fired Kornfein, whom many fans held responsible for signing the Chechen players. Cohen, the coach, has also been replaced. The two Muslim players are no longer with the club. They have returned to play in Chechnya, where they have impressed with strong displays in this summer’s preseason.

The new owner has appeased the club’s most fanatic supporters in an attempt to unify his base. Tabib has given no indication that he intends to sign any Arab or Muslim players going forward. Unfortunately, Beitar will be the story that most of the world will hear about, if they hear about Israeli soccer. There won’t be any mention of any positive interaction, where Arab and Jewish Israelis compete on a regular basis.

Last season should have been a celebratory moment in Israeli soccer. It could have been the first step in a positive direction for Beitar Jerusalem, joining the rest of the league as an equal-opportunity club. As it stands, Beitar Jerusalem has yet to sign a player of Arab descent. In a league that imports players from around the globe, from South America, Europe, and Africa, it remains the only team in Israeli soccer never to have enlisted an Arab player.

Whatever happens in Beitar, most games played in Israel will carry on peacefully, whether it’s an Arab team visiting a Jewish team, or a Jewish team playing in an Arab city.

I remember pulling into Umm al-Fahm, the largest Arab city in Israel, during my first year in Israel, in 2007. We got off the team bus and were greeted inside the stadium by an official from the opposing club, Ironi Umm al-Fahm, which was having a great season. He showed us to our locker room, where there was coffee, tea, and baklava. We played and lost in front of a full and enthusiastic crowd, against a team made up of Arab and Jewish Israelis. At the end of the game the players shook hands, and we got back on the bus to head home to Herzliya.

There was nothing more to it.

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As Israeli Soccer Season Opens, the World’s Eyes Are on One Team: Beitar Jerusalem

But the team’s racist episodes are the exception in a league full of Jews and Arabs competing peacefully, says a former player

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