Anti-semitism in European soccer is nothing new. Racist and neo-Nazi chants, hatred on Facebook pages, denied visas for Israelis trying play in Dubai, the list goes on and on. Last year’s European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine forced Jewish soccer fans to do some real soul-searching.
But recent events in Israel should force us to take a hard look inward at a sore that has been festering in Israeli soccer.
Israeli Arabs have been playing in Israeli’s soccer leagues for years. They also play for Israel’s national team. Unfortunately, racist and extreme Zionist-nationalistic chants have been echoing through the stands of Israeli stadiums for as long as Arabs have been playing in them.
While pockets of intolerance and racism exist throughout Israel, the biggest culprits are the extremist fans of Betar Yerushalayim, who affectionately refer to themselves as La Familia. This subset of Beitar’s fan base is famous for its anti-Arab chants and racist chants towards African players who play in the Israeli Premier League.
Their antics are so troubling that ESPN, the godfather (pun intended) of sports journalism, did a 15-minute feature on them in the fall.
However, the past few weeks have seen a historic series of events.
On January 31, Beitar announced the signing of two Muslim players from Chechnya, Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev. Beitar was, until then, the only Israeli team that had never signed a Muslim player.
The subsequent reaction of La Familia was public, shameful, and embarrassing… and well-documented. They began spitting on and cursing at their own players and management, and took the opportunity to unfurl a huge banner at Teddy Stadium that read “Beitar Pure Forever.”
Then, on February 8, the offices of Beitar were the victim of an arson attack. A great deal of team memorabilia and trophies were destroyed. Politicians weighed in from the right and the left against the escalation.
Yesterday, seven La Familia members were arrested in connection with the attack. In addition, the section of Teddy Stadium where La Familia usually sits has been closed, and police and security personnel are now roaming the stands during games ready to kick out any fan who incites racist chanting.
Fortunately, we are past the tipping point in this fight against racism and intolerance at Beitar. The ostracizing of La Familia by everyone from the team’s owner to President Shimon Peres and the harsh punishments (including point deductions) being meted out to the club by the Israel Football Association are sending a strong message to everyone: enough is enough.
78 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. It took fourteen years for the Red Sox to sign Pumpsie Green, their first black ballplayer, a mark of shame that continues to taint the franchise and the city to this day.
It will take years to heal the wounds that Beitar’s fans have caused in Israel.
Let’s hope that work can begin now.
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