One of the funniest incidents in the history of Israeli football – which is usually more tragic than comic – happened during a Game between Hapoel Tel aviv and Beitar Jerusalem in 1969. The matches between the two were always tense. Sport clubs in Israel developed as branches of political parties; Hapeol was the Histadrut’s, and therefore the Labor’s team, while Beitar was just what its name declared – the team of Beitar, meaning the old Revisionists, Begin’s Herut and later on, the Likud. So troubles were almost inevitable.
The 1969 game happened to be the biggest game in the short career of Roni Calderon, Hapoel’s brilliant attacker. Calderon scored twice. On the second time, legend has it that he dribbled through Beitar’s defense, passed a few players, then the goalkeeper, only to find himself in front of a Beitar fan – a soldier armed with an Uzi – standing on the goal line. But Calderon – who later escaped a Brazilian prison were he served time for drug offenses, and is still said to be hiding in the Tropics – wasn’t easily intimidated. He scored, the rest of the Beitar crowd stormed the pitch, and thus the game ended.
It was one of those events that created the myth of the Beitar Jerusalem crowd – known for both its unconditional love for the team and its tendency to go wild. These fans – most of them Mizrachim – came from the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The city’s elite supported the rival Hapoel Jerusalem, and Beitar became a symbol of a sort of rebellion against the political establishment and the ruling social order. Israel’s best known comedy group, Hagashashim, had two famous sketches about Beitar fans, which established their image in Israeli popular culture.
During the 1983-1984 season, following a supporters rampage in a cup game – again, against Hapoel Tel Aviv – Beitar was punished by the Israeli Football Association and was forced to Play almost all of its games in the first half of the following season outside Jerusalem and in empty stadiums. But the truth is that at the time, Beitar fans weren’t much worse than those of most other big clubs, and dangerous incidents happened in Tel Aviv and Haifa as well. It was their image, as well as the fact that by then the team had the biggest audience in Israel, that got the Beitar crowd all the attention.
But something else happened to some of Beitar fans during the 90′s – their rightist political orientation had turned into blunt racism.
Beitar Jerusalem is the only team in Israel that never hired an Arab player. A few years ago, a Muslim African defender named Ibrahim Nadalla started playing for the team. He was met with such hostility from the fans – there were even threats made on his life – that in a short while he gave up and left the team. Later, when the (then) popular team owner, Billioner Arkadi Gaidamek, discussed in public the possibility of bringing an Arab player to the Beitar, a few supporters’ groups announced that they will fight this idea by any possible means.
Beitar plays in what I think is the best Stadium in Israel – “Teddy”, named after Jerusalem’s legendary mayor, Teddy Kollek. On February 2005, Israel’s national team held a friendly match against Croatia in Teddy. On the second half, Abbas Suan, an Arab midfielder, was sent into the game, only to be received with curses and racist calls from Beitar fans in the stands. Fearing another embarrassment, the IFA never had the national team play again in Jerusalem – which is, after all, the state’s capital. That didn’t prevent Beitar fans from repeating their racist calls in numerous league games since, especially those played against Bney Sachnin, the only Arab team in the Israeli top division.
I wrote before about the relations between extreme right groups and some Beitar fans. It is very common to see Beitar scarves or T-shirts in incidents and demonstrations involving the extreme right. This by no means goes to say that all Beitar fans are racists, violent or even supporters of the right wing, only that there are some extreme elements within this crowd, and that for years, not the team nor the IFA had the will or the courage to confront these elements.
Racism on the football field is not a problem unique to Israel. Italian club Lazio and the Netherlands’ Feyenoord are infamous for the anti-Semitism of their fans. In recent years, the European Football Association has decided to uphold increased measures against this problem, and is currently threatening to ban clubs and even associations that won’t be able to control their fans’ behavior.
Maybe that’s what prompted the IFA to act, and it seems that at long last, the massage that racism shouldn’t be an acceptable form of expression on the football ground is starting to come through, even in Israel. On Thursday, the IFA court deducted one league point from Beitar for racist calls made recently by the team’s fans. Beitar’s players and managers, who were expecting a fine or at worst one game with no crowd, were shocked.
There were also those who said the court was too easy on them: Beitar had a pending punishment of four league points, so a single point didn’t look like much. But I try to look on the positive side: at the time the verdict was given, this point was very significant to the team’s effort to win its third straight championship. And to the best of my knowledge, it’s the first time ever a team was punished this way for racist behavior by fans. This decision sends an important massage: that the usual excuses, such as “we can’t control our fans” or “it’s not fair to punish the team and all the fans because of a small group”, just won’t work anymore.
What’s even more important, are two lessons from this case which transcend football: that (a) international pressure can help change Israelis institutions’ behavior, and (b) that when there is a will (to punish racism and hate talk), there is a way.