The case of soccer racism and the success of international pressure

The issue of racism and Islamophobia among Beitar Jerusalem fans was considered an ‘unsolvable problem’ – until it was solved.

The case of soccer racism and the success of international pressure
One of the nastiest problem in Israeli soccer is about to get better, if not completely disappear: The issue of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism among fans, players and staff. This is a decades-long problem in some clubs, the most well-known – but certainly not the only – being Beitar Jerusalem, which developed over the year a counter-culture that had a distinctive racist feature in it. The case got much attention lately, but unlike reports in the international media suggested, the problem’s roots weren’t in the La Famiglia fan club, which is relatively new, but something that has been present in various forms for decades; in the 80s one of Beitar’s stars even wanted to leave the Israeli national team because it included Israeli-Palestinian players.

Over the years, you could spot Beitar flags in right-wing rallies and among Kahane kids (here is a picture of the entire stand covered with a Kahane flag, here are Beitar fans taking part in an attack on a Palestinian). For years, fan leaders have vigorously opposed the idea of having an Arab, or even a Muslim, join the team. I personally know of several Beitar fans, some of them right-wing, who grew increasingly uncomfortable and ended up not going to games because of racist chants and xenonphbia in the stands.

Racism in football stands is not a unique Israeli problem. In the eighties, Israeli star Ronnie Rosenthal was signed by the Italian club Undines but was forced out of the team by anti-Semitic fans, and there are many other clubs who became known for their Islamophobia, antisemitism and racism against blacks. Beitar was among the notorious ones though, and the fact that many Israeli politicians identified as the team’s fans – Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu are the most well-known – made things worse by legitimizing the racist attitude in the stands.

The current turn of event began with a decision by the club’s eccentric owner, Arkadi Gaydamak, to sign two Muslim (but non-Arab) players to the team. As expected, some fans, and especially La Famiglia members, protested – but this time they were met with a fierce response from the club, which was backed by the Israeli Football Association and even the police (politicians were the last to join; and only after the club HQ was torched by fans did Prime Minister Netanyahu issue some fable condemnation. This is perhaps the worst feature in Netanyahu’s character – his tolerance of radical right-wing violence, racism, incitement and hate, that seem to always grow during his terms).

Many celebrities and public figures have joined the calls against racism, and La Famiglia fans found themselves for the first time isolated and rejected. As always in such cases, once decisive action was taken, it turned out that those willing fight in order to hold on to racism were a tiny minority – but make no mistake, this was a dominant culture at a certain point. As Larry Derfner wrote here, the looming victory in this battle could be a drop in the ocean, “but it’s a pretty big drop.”

What made the difference this time? Certainly the fact that Israeli racism has been debated in the public sphere lately played a role. The failure of the racist Otzma LeYisrael party in the last elections also demonstrated that civil society initiatives and public rejection of racism by mainstream voices can change the discourse, even when the political leadership is silent.

But in the case of Beitar, the decisive element was clearly outside pressure. Israel is a member of the European Football Association (UEFA) which is the strongest and most important in the world. In recent years, UEFA and the International Football Association (FIFA) have grown impatient with racism, and began to take meaningful action against clubs who tolerated xenophobia in their stands (not to mention those who actually encouraged it). The Israeli association was warned several times that it should take action against Beitar’s fans, or risk punitive measures.

Recently it became clear that Beitar might have problems taking part in international competitions, and that other Israeli clubs – even the national team – could suffer as consequence  In late January the Israeli Football Association revealed that FIFA might end up dismantling the club if immediate measures are not taken. “The implications of more racist chants could be disastrous to the future of our club and I don’t usually speak in such a manner,” Beitar chairman and former star Itzik Kornfein told the Israeli media.

Once a clear demand to eradicate racism was put forward by international bodies – accompanied with clear punitive action – the Israeli association and the club took immediate action against the perpetrators. If anything, tackling the racist fans turned out to be relatively easy. I remember “experts” saying that a change would take “generations,” or that the problem could be solved unless the entire Israeli society changed. Strangely enough, nobody accused the European Association in meddling with internal Israeli affairs, or of having an anti-Israeli bias. One can only guess how this affair would have developed if Israel was a member of the North American association, or if the U.S. had more leverage in the world of soccer.

The lesson here is clear. Politicians would like to avoid dealing with social problems and human right issues, especially if they identify their roots in their own political “base.” But the case of Beitar Jerusalem – for years, written off as a lost cause – teaches us that on human right issues, outside intervention is effective (perhaps it’s the only effective thing); and that public opinion and local institutions are more attentive and receptive to pressure than it seems, as long as its presented in a clear and effective way.