With its racist history, can a Jerusalem football team accept an Arab owner?

As Emirati sheikh buys shares in Beitar Jerusalem, the notorious club is confronting its racist ultra-fans in hopes of reviving its competitive edge.

Beitar Jerusalem F.C. fans seen before the start of the match between their team and Hapoel Haifa F.C. at the final of the State Cup in the Teddy stadium, Jerusalem, May 9, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Beitar Jerusalem F.C. fans seen before the start of the match between their team and Hapoel Haifa F.C. at the final of the State Cup in the Teddy stadium, Jerusalem, May 9, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Beitar Jerusalem is perhaps Israel’s most notorious football (soccer) club. Infamous for the racist chanting of its yellow-and-black clad supporters — particularly its raucous ultra-fans, known as “La Familia,” some of whom have been involved in street violence outside of games — the team has never fielded an Arab player, unlike all the other major teams in the Israeli national league.

This anti-Arab sentiment and history of violence has been in the spotlight again following the recent sale of a 50 percent stake in the club to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling royal family, a few months after Israel signed its normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates last August. According to Israeli media reports, the Israel Football Association, which is in the process of approving the sale, is currently probing the deal after substantial questions were raised about the Emirati businessman’s financial assets.

If the sale is confirmed, the club will find itself under the auspices of a wealthy Arab co-owner. But even if it is not, a lot has changed at Beitar in the last seven years to facilitate such a radical break from its past — not only spelling a shift in the fanbase’s views, but also exhibiting shifts within the Israeli right as it increasingly connects with the wider Middle East.

The last time Beitar’s management clashed with La Familia was in 2013 — and it lost heavily. The conflict was famously captured in the film “Forever Pure,” which documented the arrival of two Muslim Chechen players to Beitar. Fans launched a fierce campaign of verbal abuse during matches, protests outside managers’ homes, death and rape threats, a boycott of the club’s matches, and an arson attack that destroyed the team’s historical trophy room.

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“They think we’re Arabs,” said striker Zaur Sadayev in the film, in apparent disbelief at the violent reception to their arrival. The younger of the two players, 19-year-old defender Dzhabrail Kadiyev, visibly struggled under the pressure of the onslaught. Unsurprisingly, both players departed for the airport soon after their final match of the season with the club.

Gabriel Kadiev (L) and Zaur Sadayev seen during a Beitar Jerusalem soccer club press conference introducing the new players to the media, Jerusalem, Jan. 30, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Gabriel Kadiev (L) and Zaur Sadayev seen during a Beitar Jerusalem soccer club press conference introducing the new players to the media, Jerusalem, Jan. 30, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the problems did not end with the Chechen players. The club’s chairman, Itzik Kornfein, a former goalkeeper and club hero, was forced out of his job, and owner Arcadi Gaydamak departed. Captain Ariel Harush, whose season started with fans singing his praises and ended with them chanting threats, also left the club for heeding the management’s instructions to welcome the two new players, despite his obvious discomfort at doing so during a press conference featured in the film. Midfielder Ofir Kriaf — said to have connections to the ultra-fans — took over as captain. La Familia had won.

Way beyond football

While La Familia’s roots go back to the early 2000s, Beitar’s connection to right-wing politics began as early as its establishment in 1936, when the club was largely associated with the revisionist, right-wing branch of Zionism, the ideological home of today’s Likud party.

Unlike the clubs that were once connected to Israel’s old Zionist left — those with HaPoel, “the worker,” in their names — Beitar has retained strong links to its political origins. And while many of Beitar’s fans and players are homegrown Jerusalemites, the club also enjoys widespread support across the country, especially among working-class Mizrahim living in Israel’s periphery towns.

“Beitar is way beyond football,” says Amitzia, a supporter of the club since childhood. “It represents tradition and… Jerusalem. It’s a connection to Jewish identity.”

Beitar Jerusalem fans at the State Cup match between Beitar Jerusalem F.C. and Maccabi Bnei Raina in the Teddy stadium, Jerusalem, Jan. 16, 2020. (Flash90)
Beitar Jerusalem fans at the State Cup match between Beitar Jerusalem F.C. and Maccabi Bnei Raina in the Teddy stadium, Jerusalem, Jan. 16, 2020. (Flash90)

For Amitzia, a fan who grew up in Jerusalem during Beitar’s golden days in the 1990s, the center of the action and love for the club is in Teddy Stadium’s East Stand — the section synonymous with La Familia. While the group makes a lot of noise and at times is not pleasant to be around, their racism does not represent the vast majority of Beitar fans, says Amitzia, who he believes largely support the club’s new Emirati ownership arrangement.

The extent to which the extreme racism personified by La Familia is present among the club’s wider fanbase is central to the management’s ability to confront its ultras. La Familia was previously estimated to make up around 20 percent of the crowd at matches, but as a well-organized and vocal bloc, it often took the lead of the crowd’s mood and chanting. This was most notable in 2013, when a boycott of Beitar’s matches led by La Familia against the Chechen players, and seemingly observed by most of the club’s fans, was a key factor in defeating the management.

But Israel, and the Middle East around it, is changing.

“Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu has put his kosher stamp on the deal between Beitar and Hamad bin Khalifa — and its fans, even La Familia, will not go against Netanyahu,” says Raanan Rein, a history professor at Tel Aviv University. While La Familia has made some shows of protest, and is likely to make more, it will ultimately follow the Likud party’s cue so long as Netanyahu — a populist leader whose authoritarian style many Beitar fans support — remains its head, says Rein.

Fans of Beitar Jerusalem soccer club protest the decision to sign two Chechen Muslims players Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev, during a training in Jerusalem on Feb. 1, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Fans of Beitar Jerusalem soccer club protest the decision to sign two Chechen Muslims players Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev, during a training in Jerusalem on Feb. 1, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Others see La Familia as stuck in a Catch 22. Part of Netanyahu’s political legacy is now bound to the success of Israel’s normalization deal with the UAE, and therefore by extension to the Beitar ownership arrangement, says Moshe Zimmermann, a historian and professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While the prime minister has benefited from traipsing himself in yellow and black in the past, his dealings with U.S. President Donald Trump have taken priority — leaving Beitar and La Familia as collateral damage.

This, Zimmermann says, could lead to a switching of loyalties by Beitar fans away from Likud and toward an alternative such as the recently founded New Hope party led by former Likudnik Gideon Sa’ar.

Sick of losing

Even with the largest football fanbase in the country, Beitar’s supporters are of course too small in number to have any impact on the direction of Israeli politics itself. However, the debates taking place among fans are significant because they act as a lens, revealing undercurrents in Israeli politics and society, says Rein.

For some fans, the times when La Familia could hold the club hostage and demand that it keeps its roster “pure” of Arab or Muslim players are coming to an end. “The majority of fans have slowly understood that as long as the club is connected to racism and violence, we will never win the championship again,” says Moshe Ziat, a host on the football podcast Tzion 3, and a Beitar fan since his friend introduced him to the team in kindergarten.

Beitar Jerusalem fans seen during the match between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin F.C. at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, March 31, 2019. (Flash90)
Beitar Jerusalem fans seen during the match between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin F.C. at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, March 31, 2019. (Flash90)

La Familia, who have demonstrably put ideology before the club’s success or the enjoyment of matches, are seeing their support dwindle as a result. Mainstream Beitar fans who have grown sick of seeing their club languishing near the bottom of the league table are increasingly willing to confront the radical supporters, says Ziat.

Does this mean that fans will oppose La Familia’s calls to obstruct the changes being made by Moshe Hogeg, Beitar’s co-owner, who sold half of his stake to Dubai’s bin Khalifa? Yes, Ziat believes: Teddy Stadium was empty during 2013 as much because Beitar was playing terribly and because La Familia were sapping the enjoyment out of attending, as it was because large numbers of fans supported the anti-Muslim boycott, he says.

The fact that then-owner Arcadi Gaydamak appeared not to have Beitar’s best interests at heart also could have antagonized fans. During interviews in “Forever Pure,” the Russian-Israeli oligarch appeared openly uninterested in football as a sport let alone Beitar as a club. Rather, he allegedly attempted to use the Jerusalem team as a tool to becoming mayor of the city in 2008, an attempt that fell embarrassingly flat. As a result, some fans believe, he brought in the two Muslim players as an act of revenge.

Today, it is La Familia who appear not to have Beitar’s championship interests at heart — and this could make all the difference. Many of the European football clubs that were bought in recent years by Middle Eastern royalty, and then went on to have championship success with the ensuing injections of cash, are proving a tempting comparison to mainstream Beitar fans.

Moshe Hogeg, Beitar Jerusalem owner, seen during the Israeli Premier League match between Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Beer Sheba at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, Aug. 25, 2019. (Flash90)
Moshe Hogeg, Beitar Jerusalem owner, seen during the Israeli Premier League match between Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Beer Sheba at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, Aug. 25, 2019. (Flash90)

Indeed, since taking ownership of Beitar in 2018, Hogeg has consistently stated that the club needs to improve its image to attract sponsors and win competitions, explains Yoav Tubul, sports editor at Ynet News. Just over a year ago, Hogeg even threatened to sue fans responsible for racist abuse toward a newly signed player from Niger, Ali Mohamed, who has a Muslim name but is himself a Christian. “If Hogeg sticks to his stated aims and goes all the way, I don’t think La Familia can stand up to him because he has the support of most fans. And he has money,” he adds.

A spokesperson for Beitar Jerusalem F.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.

Beitar’s first Palestinian player?

As Israel changes its relationship with the Arab countries that surround it, it appears that Beitar Jerusalem is also changing its relationship to the most excessive forms of racism in its stadium. New diplomatic realities will not end the injustices inherent in how Israel treats the Palestinians living under its control — including Palestinian citizens of Israel — just as an Arab sheikh owning Beitar will not eradicate all the racism within the club and its fanbase. But it could still move the needle in a different direction.

One fan, who asked not to be named due to not having permission from his employer to speak to the media, said it was only a matter of time before Beitar fields an Arab player. “I want the new owners to think about quality and not about the religion. But it will happen soon, because there are a lot of good Arab players,” he says.

Members of La Familia group protest against the intention of Beitar owner Moshe Hogeg to sell a percentage of the group to a member of the UAE royalty, at Beitar Jerusalem training ground in Jerusalem, Dec. 4, 2020. (Flash90)
Members of La Familia group protest against the intention of Beitar owner Moshe Hogeg to sell a percentage of the group to a member of the UAE royalty, at Beitar Jerusalem training ground in Jerusalem, Dec. 4, 2020. (Flash90)

The fan, who describes himself as right-wing and supportive of the two-state solution, pointed to Palestinian Israeli Hatem Abd Elhamed as a player he would like to see signed. The defender, who plays for Celtic FC in Scotland and for the Israeli national team, is reportedly interested in returning to Israeli club football and was contacted by Beitar’s management, who want to sign him within the coming weeks.

Effi Gorodetzer, who lives in the Israeli settlement of Efrat and says he does not vote for Netanyahu because the prime minister is not right-wing enough, says he opposes Elhamed’s recruitment only because of an excess of right-footed defenders on the team — but is still open to an Arab player joining. “As long as he knows where he’s playing and will give 100 percent for this team,” he says.

Curbing the most overt forms of xenophobia does not entail removing racism in its entirety from Israeli football. As has been seen in the United States — where celebration of the achievements of Black athletes has neither ended systemic racism there, nor guaranteed their freedom to express themselves on the matter of racial justice — it is likely that Beitar fans will accept Arab players without confronting, or even acknowledging, the racism that stems from Israel’s relationship with Palestinians.

Still, most Beitar fans appear supportive of their team’s new ownership arrangement, and may soon be cheering a Palestinian to help them win tournaments. This sentiment, rather than the power of La Familia, may be what decides if Beitar’s 2021 will avoid repeating the saga of 2013. It is the management’s game to lose.