Max Nordau had a dream. Beitar Jerusalem were supposed to be an ideal manifestation of it. That was until politics turned it into football’s worst nightmare.
Born in the mid-19th century, Max Nordau was a Zionist leader and the co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation along with Theodor Herzl. One of his most influential contributions to the Zionist agenda was coining the term Muskeljudentum or muscular Judaism.
The term Muskeljudentum refers to the burgeoning of both mental and physical strength among the Jewish diaspora to combat racism, among other things.
Speaking at the Second Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1898, Nordau argued that those falling victims to the rampant anti-Semitism that plagued Europe were in fact victims of a self-inflicted condition called Judennot or Jewish distress. Nordau was adamant that Jews living in ghettos and striving for an intellectually enlightening life that revolved around esoteric subjects had made them weak and effeminate. Muskeljudentum was meant to offer an antithesis for the stereotypical short, hook-nosed, all skin and bones depiction of a Jew in anti-Semitic literature.
“In the narrow Jewish streets our poor limbs forgot how to move joyfully,” he wrote. “In the gloom of sunless houses our eyes became accustomed to nervous blinking; out of fear of constant persecution the timbre of our voices was extinguished to an anxious whisper.”
Nordau called for more gymnasiums and athletic clubs in order to harness Muskeljudentum as a potential panacea for Judennot. And for a period, Nordau’s vociferous imploration did achieve its desired effect as the European Jewry soon experienced a steady outpouring of sporting achievements to go hand in hand with their intellectual attainments.
More than a century has passed since Nordau made that speech in Basel. And not many encapsulate the finer tenets of Nordau’s entreat quite literally than the Israeli football club Beitar Jerusalem and their fans who are known by the collective ‘La Familia’.
Political origins of Beitar Jerusalem
Beitar are one of Israel’s most popular clubs along with Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv. However, what sets Beitar apart from these other clubs is the overwrought political undercurrent that has engulfed the club from top to bottom since their inception in 1936.
Founded by two Jerusalemites, David Horn and Shmuel Kirchstein, the nascent Beitar was set out as a youth team that played against local Jerusalem based sides. Horn was a local leader of the Betar Movement – a Revisionist Zionist youth movement that went against the protocols set by the British Mandate that occupied the then pre-statehood Israel. Betar aided the immigration of many Jews into Palestine throughout the 1930s and 40s which practically put them in a position of open rebellion against the British Mandate.
Beitar fans are often identified with the Revisionist Movement and its successor parties like the Likud Party. The leader of Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a very vocal supporter of Beitar Jerusalem.
The club was also closely associated with Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1948. The future Israeli politician Haim Corfu played as a striker for Beitar and was a member of Irgun’s Jerusalem command. Corfu was an expert in explosives, a skill that he later used to assassinate Ralph Cairns and Ronald Barker, two police officers with Palestine Police CID’s Jewish section.
The club’s close ties with the Revisionists also invited conflicts against members of Mapai, the Workers Party of Israel which was later assimilated into several other parties to form the modern day Israeli Labour Party.
Several Beitar players were members of Irgun and Lehi which was another paramilitary organisation. The British police performed routine crackdowns on these members who were later deported to East Africa, most notably to Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea where the exiled members formed the Beitar Eritrea FC. The British governor of Palestine declared Beitar as an illegal organisation in 1947 forcing the club to change its name to Nordia Jerusalem. The club would continue to call itself Nordia until Israel received statehood in May 1948.
However, Beitar disappeared into irrelevance in the first few decades since independence as the Labour Party and the Histradut (Israel’s Trade Union) backed Hapoel teams enjoyed success while Maccabi Tel Aviv, like always, remained in the forefront of Israeli football.
The contamination of Nordau’s Dream
In the late 1970s, both Beitar as a club and Israel as a nation went through a paradigm-shifting change of fortunes that completely transmuted the sporting and political landscape of the country.
In 1976, Beitar won the State Cup final in dramatic fashion to lift their first major trophy. Played against Maccabi Tel Aviv at the Raman Gan Stadium, the game was attended by 55,000 screaming fans. Beitar took the lead through Danny Neuman in the 41st minute but Vicky Peretz brought the scores level three minutes later to end the half at 1-1. It was not until the 114th minute in extra time that Beitar and Israel legend Uri Malmilian scored the winner to send the crowd into a frenzy. After years of flirting with success, Beitar were finally a force to be reckoned with in Israeli football.
In 1977, elections for the ninth Knesset (parliament) took place. The Likud Party, led by Menachem Begin, won the elections put an end to the Left’s 30-year rule over Israeli politics.
The new dawn cast its pleasant white light upon Beitar who made rapid progress within a decade to win their first ever championship in 1987. Although they got relegated in 1991, the nineties were by and large Beitar’s golden period as a football club. Led by the talismanic attacker Eli Ohana, who was instrumental in Belgian side KV Mechelen’s European Cup Winners’ Cup success in 1988, Beitar won three league championships in the nineties. The team played a dynamic, exciting brand of football previously unseen in the Israeli top flight.
But the nineties also saw malignancy in the form of extremist, racist football hooligans that formed a very vocal contingent of the Beitar support. These fans did not even remotely resemble the old Jewish stereotype bur rather mimicked the stereotypical drunk, shirtless delinquents that attached themselves to practically every football club in mainland Europe. Muskeljudentum was in full swing but in a perverse, mutated modus operandi.
Beitar fans wore their hearts on their sleeves and went to each game as if it were their last. There’s something alluringly primal about their obsession with Beitar that verges on mania. They practised a form of nationalism that was borderline jingoism. They revelled in the rich history of Judaism to such a degree that they appeared ethnocentric and ostentatiously xenophobic. Most of the hardcore Beitar fanatics are descendants of Mizrahi Jews or Oriental Jews whose ancestry can be traced back to local Jewish communities from the Arabic speaking Middle Eastern and North African countries.
In their minds, they have an ancient connection with Islam and the Arab world, and not a very good one.
They are fiercely proud of their Jewish identity and flags of the now dissolved Kach Party, an ultranationalist, Orthodox Jewish political party that lasted from 1971 to 1994, are often seen waved proudly in the East Stand of the Teddy Stadium, Beitar’s hallowed home ground.
The fans did not want a Muslim player in their club and the club in turn, continued to adhere to these proposals so as to not displease the fiercely loyal fan following. But the fact is, Beitar once did have Muslim players in its ranks. Goram Ajoyev, a Tajik footballer, became the first Muslim to play for the club in 1989 and was well received by the fans. In 2004, they signed Nigerian defender Ibrahim Ndala from Maccabi Tel Aviv. Ndala was black and a Muslim. He left the club after just five games because of the torrent of abuse he received from his own fans.
“I left Betar because the fans abused me, that’s why,” said Ndala. “It was a bitter experience for me. They sang to me ‘son of a bitch,’ ‘Arab, go home.’ In Nigeria, I did not experience this kind of behaviour in my life, and it happened to me only in Beitar, and from the country, I came from, the rivalry was neither political nor ethnic, and because I was a Muslim I could not play Betar.”
This goes to show that the deep-rooted racist predisposition of some Beitar fans only became pervasive in the nineties. However, there is an explanation for that.
Peace begets hate
In 1993, the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed a peace accord in the lawns of the White House in Washington D.C. in the presence of the President of the United States Bill Clinton. There is a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Clinton standing in the background with the visage of a relieved father who had finally settled a squabble between his two kids.
It was the first ever face to face agreement between a ruling Israeli government and the PLO. The treaty called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of West Bank and the Gaza Strip in addition to granting the Palestinians a right to self-governance in those areas. Israel recognised the PLO as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people while Palestine recognised Israel’s right to statehood.
This too-good-to-be-true political concurrence did not go down well with both Israel’s and Palestine’s far-right factions. Jerusalem and other Israeli cities were hit with suicide bombings and attacks from Hamas. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli physician, massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims and injured 125 others inside the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Cave of Patriarchs compound in Hebron, West Bank.
Yigal Amir, an Israeli right-wing extremist of Mizrahi background and a vocal opponent of the Oslo accords, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv in 1995. In 2015, footage surfaced of Beitar fans chanting Amir’s name in a game against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The situation had gone from bad to worse between Israel and Palestine.
Inside the Hornet’s Hive
To inquest,Middle Eastern politics is like putting your head inside a hornet’s hive. Delving deep into the Israel-Palestine conflict is like skinny-dipping in a pond full of hungry crocodiles. The situation will devour you.
Amidst all the chaos, Beitar fans at Teddy Stadium had come up with a new chant: “Death to the Arabs”. The anti-Arab/Muslim sentiment ran deep in the ranks of La Familia who graced the East Stand at Teddy. In 1997, when Hapoel Taibe, the first Arab team to play in the Israeli top flight, came to Teddy, they had to endure a barrage of racist and xenophobic slurs from the East Stand for the full 90 minutes.
In 2007, during a Toto Cup semi-final tie against Bnei Sakhnin, the most successful Israeli-Arab club in the country, Beitar fans chanted provocative songs insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The Israeli Football Association forced the club to play their next fixture against Sakhnin behind closed doors. In an act of retribution, a few ruffians set the IFA offices on fire and left graffiti on the scene of crime threatening to kill the IFA chairman. The initials ‘LF’ was also found on the scene but obviously, La Familia denied their involvement.
“The anti-Arab wave started after the terror attacks in the second half of the nineties,” said Beitar fan David Frenkiel. “The reaction from the media and the left led to a childish response. The more the fans were attacked the more their provocations grew. I’m not sure all those who chanted were racists but that’s the way it was in the stand. You shouted exactly the same chants as the guy next to you. People blamed the ‘normal’ crowd for not standing up against the racists but it was a ridiculous claim. Who wants to confront those people? So after a while, it became the flag that the fans were waving.”
Beitar were the only club in the Israeli top flight to have never signed an Arab player. However, that soon changed and as anticipated, opened a Pandora’s Box of political tension.
Beitar Jerusalem – Propaganda FC
In 2005, Beitar Jerusalem FC was bought by the USSR-born billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak. He had immigrated to Israel as a 20-year-old and had made his money through dealing arms in Angola, an episode which would later be called the Mitterand-Pasqua Affair or simply Angola-Gate. Arcadi’s infiltration of the Jerusalemite sports circle was meticulously calculated and was delivered with pinpoint precision. His interests did not lie with Beitar’s sporting ambitions but with his own political aspirations.
First, he bought the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team. A month later, he donated $400,000 to Bnei Sakhnin FC. Arcadi wanted to make friends everywhere. Later that day, Arcadi announced his purchase of 55% stake at Beitar Jerusalem, and 48 hours later, had sole ownership of the club.
Arcadi wanted to use Beitar’s huge fan base as a springboard for a potential career in Israeli politics. An Israeli politician associating himself with Beitar to gain political mileage was certainly not unprecedented.
Ehud Olmert, former Mayor of Jerusalem and ex-Prime Minister of Israel, was a regular at the Teddy Stadium. Even Benjamin Netanyahu was once seen exchanging headers at half-time. In a city that plays host to the Jerusalem Syndrome, a phenomenon that triggers a psychosis in an individual making them believe that they are the second coming of Christ, Arcadi was one in a long line of potential ‘Saviours’ manifesting in front of a disillusioned Beitar support awaiting the Rapture.
“I never was a football fan. I always said that,” confessed Arcadi. “But Beitar has more fans than all the other clubs in Israel combined. And this is why it’s a very interesting propaganda tool. It has a huge influence on Israeli society.”
Despite Arcadi’s confession, he did invest a huge sum of money into Beitar. Beitar did benefit from Arcadi’s perfunctory role as an owner of an ambitious football club. Top players were recruited for vast sums of money. Well known footballing personalities, including former Tottenham Hotspur and Argentina’s World Cup winning midfielder Osvaldo Ardiles, had stints as manager of the club in an era that saw Beitar win two back to back league titles between 2006 and 2008 and two consecutive State Cups in 2008 and 2009.
In 2007, Arcadi had founded a political party called Tzedek Hevrati or Social Justice. He donated vast sums of money to charities, he made political connections not just in the Jewish community but also in the Arab one. The following year, at that back of a ‘Double’ winning season, he entered the elections to become the next Mayor of Jerusalem. Beitar fans loved him and those who did not were definitely enamoured by the idea of their club owner becoming the Mayor of one of the most important cities in the world.
Acradi Gaydamak and his party received just 3.6% of the votes and lost the election to Likud’s Nir Barkat.
Men playing God
Slowly but gradually Arcadi lost interest in Beitar and seldom attended games at Teddy. La Familia were up in arms.
You’re a son of a bitch,
A traitor, a war criminal,
Everyone knows you’re corrupt,
You’ll go to jail in France,
We will haunt you day and night
Our dream is to watch you fall!
A French court had sentenced Arcadi in absentia to serve a three-year prison term for his involvement in Angola-gate.
It was the 2012-13 season and his relationship with the fans was beyond repair. Lack of proper investment in the seasons running up to the 2012-13 campaign had seen Beitar fight relegation more times that one would imagine. But something rather unexpected happened in the new season.
Following a 2-1 loss at home against Maccabi Haifa, Beitar under the tutelage of veteran coach Eli Cohen, embarked upon an incredible run of games that saw them go undefeated for two months in the league. They were now fourth on the table and echoes of the glorious past were palpable inside the Teddy Stadium. Even Arcadi was caught on camera during a game celebrating a goal like a true fan would.
Their last win was away from home against Hapoel Tel Aviv. And then, everything changed.
In January, Beitar’s sensational form had propelled them to fourth on the league table. Arcadi ’s sense of humour decided to take the club to Chechnya for a friendly game of football.
Chechnya is a federal subject of Russia and has a population of nearly 1.5 million people, 95% of whom follow Islam. The head of the Chechen Republic is Ramzan Kadyrov, who carries the look of an Eastern European warlord than the constitutional head of a country. Kadyrov had a history of violence and is constantly surrounded by a cloud of allegations concerning human rights violations in Chechnya.
It was an odd place to visit during such a crucial period in Beitar’s season. Of course, Arcadi had business interests in this part of the world.
“We should live in peace and friendship with everyone. Develop economic ties,” said Kadyrov sitting across the table from Arcadi and other dignitaries from Israel. “Our Prophet said, ‘You should develop economic ties with the Jews’. He didn’t say, ‘Kill them’, but ‘develop economic ties with them’.”
Also present at the meeting was Azerbaijani-born billionaire Telman Ismailov who, according to one source, financed Beitar’s trip to Chechnya and together with Arcadi had a business interest in the separatist nation.
A private plane, carrying around 50 people including players and staff of the club arrived at Grozny, the Chechen capital for a much-anticipated game against Terek Grozny on 9 January. The match finished 0:0 but Arcadi had achieved his goal. He was chummy with Kadyrov and to further accentuate his love for the Chechen people, he signed two Terek players for Beitar. And then, all seven hell broke loose.
The two players in question were Zaur Sadayev a 24-year-old striker, who had been in and around the Terek first team without actually ever cementing his place and 19-year-old defender Dzhabrail Kadiyev, who had an uncanny resemblance with a young Benedict Cumberbatch.
When news reached Jerusalem that Arcadi had signed two Chechen Muslim players, it sent shockwaves around the Israeli sports circle.
The papers ran the headlines: “Arcadi Gaydamak signed two Muslim players for Beitar Jerusalem.”
No Arabs Allowed
There was no mention of the names of the said players or the club they were signed from. There were more pressing issues that needed addressing. The players’ faith, for example.
The reception of Sadayev and Kadiyev was worse than that of Ndala. Fans openly abused them at the team’s training sessions at their Bayit VeGan facility. Anti-Arab songs were directed at the two players despite the fact that neither of them was actually an Arab.
Hate begat ignorance, ignorance begat imprudence. Like Martin Luther King once said, nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. And La Familia’s stunningly conscientious stupidity was apparent when they set fire to their own club’s offices which burned down their trophy room ironically destroying priceless artefacts that were hugely significant to Beitar’s legacy as a successful Israeli football club.
The extremists were particularly displeased with Beitar captain and goalkeeper Ariel Harush. Harush was a Beitar hero, a home-grown lad who grew up as a Beitar fan and was living the dreams of thousands. But the 24-year-old made the grave mistake of putting a protective arm around the shoulders of the two Chechens. He almost instantaneously became persona non grata in the eyes of La Familia.
The season began with Beitar fans singing and celebrating Harush but the tides turned and he was subjected to death threats by his own fans.
A particular kind of dyspeptic indignation emanated from the East Stand when Beitar played their next home game at Teddy against Bnei Yehuda. Flags bearing the Jewish Menorah were waved proudly, the Hatikvah was belted out with impassioned vigour.
As long as in the heart within,
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
an eye still gazes toward Zion,
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
It was not helped by the fact that Beitar lost the match 1-0, further angering the crowd.
In the against Maccabi Netanya at home, Zaur Sadayev scored his first and only goal for the club to put Beitar ahead in the 48th minute. It could be argued that although Sadayev did not think that the goal would endear him to that East Stand contingent, the scenes that followed his goal would have definitely left him in shock.
As soon as the ball ended up at the back of the net, thousands left the stadium in protest. Abuses were thrown at Kornfein, the chairman and a club legend, for sitting idly by as the two Chechen Muslims smeared the self-proclaimed ‘Forever Pure’ status of Beitar.
The two players, of course, left the club at the end of the season. Sadayev revived his career in Poland with Lechia Gdansk and Lech Poznan. Kadiyev is still finding his feet in Russian football.
Arcadi left the club, while Kornfein was forced to step down from the post of chairman after death threats to his family.
The racists won.
A philosopher’s nightmare
It would be unfair to paint all Beitar fans with the same brush. The racism and xenophobia was largely concentrated in the East Stand where La Familia operated on match-days. A group of supporters, disgusted by the fans’ behaviour, detached themselves from Beitar and formed a new club called Beitar Nordia who are hoping to reach the Israeli top flight in a few years time.
Meanwhile, the current Beitar hierarchy lives in the shadow of La Familia. The club would not dare to sign a Muslim let alone an Arab player after what happened with the whole Chechen affair.
“If he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward,” wrote Albert Camus in Neither Victims nor Executioners, a series of essays appearing in a French Resistance paper during the Nazi occupation of France.
Camus observed that it takes a great deal of effort for someone to commit to something whose objectives are so modest. It’s not just up to the conscience-stricken Beitar fans to resuscitate the tarnished image of their club. I admit, trying to integrate an Arab into Beitar in this political climate is easier said and done but a show of effort from the people running the club, in cooperation with the Israeli government, would go a long way.
It might still not be enough as this landscape of absolute moral entropy even though allows us to ridicule and criticise the despicable behaviour shown from some fans, it tacitly prohibits us from taking actual action to end this problem once and for all.
‘#Say No To Racism’. You must have seen that phrase at every FIFA event since the early 2000s. Now imagine being a regular match going Beitar fan who is in absolute disgust with the actions of La Familia. How would you feel if the governing body of world football continued to discipline these hooligans with just a slap on the wrist?
Time and again members of La Familia have brought Beitar’s already questionable name into disrepute defying every sanction put in place by either FIFA or the IFA. It’s clearly not working quite as well as one would hope.
Club owner Eli Tabib has previously ordered the closure of the East Stand in some games to curb the militancy from La Family but the decision was met with more strife.
How would Beitar bring about a change in their fan base when the hatred is so deep-rooted? Like they say, football is an anthropologist’s dream. In this case, it’s also a quandary for a philosopher to tackle.