“Forever Pure”: Racism and Football in Israel

Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans hold up a banner that reads “Beitar Pure Forever” during a match in January 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)

“Beitar Jerusalem has a much deeper meaning than the game itself,” Erel Segal, a Beitar fan, claims at the opening of Forever Pure, a documentary on the 2012-13 season of Israeli soccer’s Jerusalem flagship soccer club. (The Palestinian team in occupied East Jerusalem, Jabal al Mukaber, isn’t allowed to play any of its games in the city and must travel to the West Bank to compete against Palestinian clubs.)

Like many Israeli institutions, the Beitar soccer team’s roots date to the British mandatory period, when soccer teams arose from various Zionist movements. Hapoel teams (e.g., Hapoel Tel Aviv) are aligned with Labor Zionism, while Beitar clubs align with right-wing Revisionist Zionism. Until 1977, Israel’s coalition governments were led by Labor politicians descended from European Ashkenazi settlers. Jews from Arab countries, the Mizrahim, were not only politically sidelined, but also culturally marginalized by a Europeanized elite that looked down on Mizrahi customs as primitive and too oriental.

Soccer often serves as a powerful unifying force for disadvantaged groups, and Beitar “became a political symbol for second-class Israel,” according to Segal. Today, Beitar continues to draw its support from predominantly Mizrahi development towns outside Israel’s urban centers; such communities are near the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic hierarchy. Beitar is no longer an outlier, however; it is now one of Israel’s top-ranked clubs. And while the fortunes of Beitar and the Israeli political right are not unrelated, they’re symbiotic in their relationship with many Mizrahi Jews. Menachem Begin, himself Ashkenazi, became the first Likud leader to win high office by courting Mirazhi voters who felt scorned by Labor. The year prior, Beitar won its first national cup. Both Begin and Beitar gave Mizrahim a sense of pride.

But pride can have an ugly face. Being Mizrahi in Israel often means drawing a fine line between your identity as an Israeli Jew and your cultural proximity to Arabs. The erstwhile Labor-Ashkenazi hierarchy long forced this reality upon Mizrahim by belittling their culture in comparison to that of European Jewry. Pride can work itself out in odd ways. Mizrahim begrudge Ashkenazis, but many submit to the logic that an “authentic” Israeli is the furthest thing from an Arab, culturally or otherwise. A feeling of pride alongside inferiority can easily transform into unabashed racism, which has indeed come to define Beitar’s fan base. Unlike every other Israeli team, Beitar has never had an Arab player. Even Arabs who’ve served in the Israel Defense Forces are unwelcome, such as Druze player Wisam ‘Ismi who dropped out of tryouts after being jeered at by Beitar loyalists.

At Jerualem’s Teddy stadium, the east side bleachers are “La Familia’s” (L.F.) turf, the hardline ultras known for their “death to the Arabs” chants. Theirs is a racism that speaks to a larger vision– an Israel free of Arabs — that betrays a deep Mizrahi anxiety of being grouped with Arabs. The slogan raised by La Familia, which gives the documentary its title, Forever Pure, expresses their fear that proximity to Arabs threatens the identity of Mizrahi Jews. Only an Arab-free squad can be an authentic Jewish team, and only a nation free of Arabs can be a Jewish state worthy of its name. This racism extends to non-Arab Muslims. For L.F., this is an article of faith that cannot be broken without destroying Beitar.

Forever Pure chronicles the clash of visions between the L.F. and the team’s management after Arkadi Gaydamak, a Russian Jewish billionaire who purchased Beitar solely for its political value, recruits two Muslim Chechen players in order “to show this society as it really is.” (Eli Cohen, Beiter coach, credits it to business dealings in Chechnya.) Beitar had been here before. Previously, Gaydamak had dropped his intention to recruit an Arab player after protests. But he’s determined to see this one through, which provides the drama for the film crew, who might have been invited by Gaydamak to document the whole affair.

Beitar Jerusalem coach Eli Cohen, center, Gabriel Kadiev, left, and Zaur Sadayev. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the season gets underway, Beitar is on a winning streak, rising to fourth place after spending years near the bottom. One day, Beitar chairman Itzik Korenfine reads a headline announcing that “two Muslims” were signed to the team; not ”two players,” Korenfine emphasizes, but ”two Muslims.” They’re introduced at a press conference by Ariel Harush, team captain and goalkeeper, as Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev. Korenfine and Harush are genuinely committed to welcoming them, but the backlash is immediate. At their first practice, the new players are heckled, “You brought us two Muslims, not football players!” At the match, fans yell out “Fuck you!” to Kadiyev and Sadayev. It’s soon apparent that the L.F. and their sympathizers will go after anyone deemed complicit in the hiring of the new players: the whole team. Harush is attacked (“Our captain is a son of a bitch!”), “No fans, no wins, so stop trying!” Is the cry when opponents score and the L.F.’s bleachers are unapologetic: “Here we are the most racist team in the country!” The L.F. does not speak for all fans (many, in fact, cheer Kadiyev on the field), but they’re determined to drive home the point that, unless management bows to their demands, they’ll sink the club if they have to.

It’s Match 25 and Beitar, booed by its own side, has slipped to 7th place. Before game time, over 100 messages are sent to the team’s coach from fans demanding not to field Sadayev. Instead, Sadayev scores a goal that puts Beitar in the lead. If it were a movie, this would have been the moment when all of Beitar’s fans overcome their worst instincts and rally as one team. But the L.F. has no time for sentimentality. Hundreds of fans walk out on their own team because the wrong foot touched the ball. That night, the L.F. hoisted the banner “Beitar Forever Pure.”

“We are a violent society,” Korenfine reflects. What happens in the stadium, he argues, is an “amplified version of the behavior of our society.” Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, a former Beitar chairman, recalls sitting on the west side of the stands and telling one mayor of Jerusalem after another that their silence legitimizes the hateful spirit of the L.F. But those mayors mainly stayed silent because, as Rivlin explains, Beitar’s games are an enormous opportunity for politicians eager to target a captive audience. Back in 1999, Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, attended a Beitar game and afterwards spoke to fans in a public square where he offered his encouragement, ironically with an Arab command, “Yalla Beitar!” Before and after Netanyahu spoke, the fans chanted “death to the Arabs!” While Netanyahu lectures Palestinians about alleged “incitement,” he himself is very happy to court those who’ve made a death threat a popular team song. For Gaydamak, shouting “death to the Arabs” is the way some fans “express their love for the Jewish nation.” It is more than xenophobic nationalism at play: for Mizrahi fans, there’s an underlying message: “We hate Arabs and we say so loudly, so don’t confuse us with them!” Gaydamak notes that, while Israeli politicians might not shout the L.F.’s slogans, they stand by them in order to stay in power.

While politicians are born opportunists, one might expect a team to rally around one another, but Beitar’s squad doesn’t offer much comfort to Sadayev and Kadiyev. One exception is an Argentine player, but the hero of the story is Harush, whose integrity as captain stands as a profile in courage. Harush endures open hatred rather than buckle to the L.F. His sportsmanship inspires very few, however.

At Beitar’s next game, the stands are nearly empty; “the price of betrayal” a banner declares. Sports commentator Meir Einstein expresses shock that the L.F. could have so much influence over the rest of the fan base, but a non-racist fan wonders where are all the fans who claim they do not do share the L.F.’s racism. Gaydamak wanted to expose Israeli society for its prejudice and hypocrisy, and this moment is illustrative. Many in mainstream Israel feign ignorance about the true influence of extreme actors, which they portray as marginal (unlike those on the Palestinian side, which is the implicit comparison), and inconsequential to the moral character of the nation. This self-regard obscures one part of Israel and serves as righteous posturing for the other side, which pretends indignation at stadium cries of “death to the Arabs,” yet remains indifferent about a military occupation that kills Arabs and foments L.F.-type hate-groups.

Rather than isolating the L.F.–Korenfine’s initially confident hope–it is the L.F. that separates the fan base from the team. Beitar plays poorly to empty arenas, which pushes it further down the league table. These moments can define an individual’s character, and Beitar midfielder Ofir Kriaf, whose brother is in L.F., flunks the test by coming out in support of the L.F., which earns him a suspension from management and fans’ adoration (“You are one of us, you are also from the east stand”).

The climax builds to Beitar’s last and fateful game against Bnei Sakhnin, the only Arab team in the Israeli top league. Fear of relegation drives the L.F. to suspend their boycott for the 90 minutes of the game. The L.F. is literally playing with fire–the club’s museum is firebombed by suspected L.F. members–but one fan explains that if Beitar is relegated, then the team is truly finished. Moreover, the L.F. views games against Sakhnin as proxy battles for the Arab-Israeli conflict, and thus cannot stomach the humiliation of losing to an Arab team.

Playing to a packed stadium, Beitar and Sakhnin aggressively face off in a desperate game. And once the match is over, and Beitar is saved, the L.F. resumes taunting Harush and broadcasts its support for Kriaf as team captain. The writing is on the wall: Kadiyev and Sadayev head to the airport from the stadium.

“It is clear we failed [to integrate the team],” Korenfine concedes. “It holds up a mirror” of the club for all to see, and the reflection is not pretty. “Looking into the future,” he hedges, “there will either be an Arab player at Beitar or there will be no Beitar.” But as practices start for the new season, and fans descend on the scene proudly declaring that they’re the “most racist team,” Korenfine’s optimism appears unfounded. Gadaymak hands over control of Beitar to new owners, which he calls a “huge relief.” Beitar’s senior management is fired, Harush is forced out by the fans (he later joins chief rival Hapoel Tel Aviv), and Kriaf’s loyalty to the L.F. is rewarded when he is named Harush’s replacement as captain.

In the end, the L.F.’s racism forced an entire team to buckle, and its ultra-nationalist antics continue unabated. In 2015, Beitar, fans chanted in celebratory bursts, not for the first time, the name of the Jewish extremist who assassinated Israeli leader Prime Minister Rabin because they consider his alliance with Arab Knesset members a betrayal. Not surprisingly, in the past few years, the new ownership has made no effort to enlist any Arab or Muslim player.

Beitar fans hold up an L.F. sign, left, and the violent far-right slogan “Good night left side” targeting Israeli liberal. August, 2015. (Oz Mualem)

Unlike in America where sports team loyalty is usually a product of geography, in much of the world soccer teams often represent class and ethnic groups and an admixture of ideology. At this moment, Beitar is the visage of a bitter ethnic-religious pride that manifests itself in the angry and xenophobic language of the far right. Moreover, the club has more fans that the rest of the league combined, and is courted by the ruling conservative and nationalist parties. Its exclusion of Arab citizens and hate speech cannot be dismissed at the mere rantings of soccer hooligans.

As Gadaymak and Korenfine note, the L.F. is the loud voice of a latent but pervasive racism. L.F. rants duly expose the silence of supposedly more enlightened Israelis. The erstwhile management’s failure to successfully take down the L.F. is analogous to the Israeli political establishment’s appeasement–if not encouragement–of radical forces, including the settler movement.

As a fitting postscript, many Beitar fans have defected in opposition to the L.F. to form their own team, which now counts Israeli President Rivlin as a fan. Beitar has lost its last three games against Sakhnin, including a home game 3-nil.