Racism and political tension tied to Israel’s soccer league

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REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- High drama exists in Israel’s soccer league for reasons other than goals scored, as political tension and racism sometimes play out on and off the fields.

The Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, most recently owned by Dan Adler and Adam Levine of the U.S., remains closely associated with its fans’ far right-wing politics and slurs against opposing players.


The club faces numerous penalties because of fan behavior, with Beitar fans often chanting personal and religious insults at other players. A group dubbed ‘La Familia’ is viewed by many as setting the tone.

“We are against racism and against violence and we pay a price for our fans,” Assad Shaked, a spokesman for the team, recently told the Associated Press.

Racism, mostly against Arabs, has plagued Israeli soccer for years. But the New Israel Fund organization’s ‘Kick Racism out of Israeli Soccer’ program reported last year that racist chanting declined during the 2010-11 season, saying that much of the change was tied to fans booing and silencing those who behaved in a racist fashion.

The overall problem involving Beitar, however, appears far from solved.

When Macabbi Haifa Muhamad Gadir recently offered to become the first Arab player for Beitar, fans balked, leading the team captain to apologize for wanting an Arab player. Lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, who favors the Sakhneed team over Beitar, said Gadir’s offer was misguided.

‘An Arab willing to play for such a racist club has no personal or national pride,’ Tibi said. Besides, he said, Beitar does not deserve an Arab player: ‘Why clean up their racist image with a cosmetic pet Arab?’

Beitar was clobbered twice this week by Arab teams from Sakhneen and Lod. The games were tense. One ended in vandalism, a brawl and a dozen arrested fans as the Arab team holed up in the locker room.

‘God punished Beitar,’ said Abu Subhi, chairman of the team from Lod, the day after they bumped Beitar out of the national cup. Before the match, Subhi’s comments that he hoped ‘the disgusting team loses’ worsened an already tense atmosphere. Jerusalem’s Jewish coach wouldn’t shake hands with his Arab counterpart.

Some Jewish politicians steadfastly support the Beitar team.

Lawmaker Danny Danon is demanding that a Knesset committee investigate Sakhneen’s allegedly disrespectful behavior during the playing of Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, before a game against Beitar in Jerusalem.

The anthem is a sensitive issue for many Arabs, who feel it excludes non-Jews. Jewish spectators often pay close attention to Arab soccer players during the anthem to see how they behave.

Tibi said Arab players respect the anthem by standing still -- ‘not in solidarity, but consideration for their colleagues and the audience’ -- but that expecting them to sing it was too much.

He finds opening local games with Hatikva ‘a needless provocation’ that is mostly practiced at ‘Teddy,’ Beitar’s home stadium.


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-- Batsheva Sobelman