By James M. Dorsey
Maccabi Haifa striker Mohammed Ghadir believes that he and Beitar Jerusalem, the bad boy of Israeli soccer, are a perfect match.
“I am well suited to Beitar, and that team would fit me like a glove. I have no qualms about moving to play for them,” Mr. Ghadir is quoted by Israeli daily Ha?aretz as saying. Beitar has a large squad, a significant fan base, wide media coverge and lacks talented strikers, he says.
There is only one hitch: Beitar doesn?t want Mr. Ghadir. Not because he?s not an upcoming star and not because they wouldn?t need a player like Mr. Ghadir but because the striker is an Israeli Palestinian. “Our team and our fans are still not ready for an Arab soccer player,” Ha?aretz quotes Beitar?s management as saying. The club prides itself on being the only top league Israeli club to have never hired a Palestinian player in a country whose population is for 20 per cent Palestinian and in which Palestinians play important roles in most other top league teams.
The Beitar management may be right in its approach, not because the team has a point in picking its players on racial grounds but because it prides itself on its bad-boy racist image and is under no pressure to change its ways despite Israeli legal restrictions on discrimination in the work place, the Israel Football Association being the only Middle Eastern soccer body to have launched a campaign against racism and Palestinian tax money contributed to the funding of this year?s refurbishing of Jerusalem stadiums.
Beitar has argued that it has broken no laws by not having hired Palestinian players because no Palestinian has ever solicited at the risk of being a target of the club?s racist attitude. Mr. Ghadir?s desire to play for Beitar puts paid to that argument.
?Now an extraordinarily courageous Arab player has stood up, and fearlessly indicated that he is not afraid to play for Beitar. The Jerusalem squad did not assent to his request – not because he lacks sufficient talent, but because he is an Arab. This is a mark of Cain for Beitar Jerusalem and its fans, and also for the city of Jerusalem, the state of Israel and its legal system, the Israel Football Association and also for the media, which continues to cover this soccer team. Day by day, we reinforce and popularize this loathsome form of racism,? said Ha?aretz columnist Yoav Borowitz in a recent article entitled ?Kick racism out of Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.?
Established in 1936 and supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revanchist Zionist youth movement. Its founding players actively resisted the pre-state British mandate authorities. Its fans shocked Israelis when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Beitar has the worst disciplinary record in Israel?s top league. Since 2005 it has faced more than 20 hearings and has received various punishments, including points deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors because of its fans? racist behaviour. Beitar?s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. It?s mostly Sephardic fans of Middle Eastern and North African origin, revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
In some ways, Mr. Ghadir?s interest in transferring from Maccabi Haifa to Beitar has an element of going from bad to worse. Israeli police said in October that it suspect militant right-wing Jewish fans of Mr. Ghadir?s own team of painting slogans reminiscent of language used by Jewish settlers on buildings in the town of Bat Yam and Muslim and Christian graves in Jaffa, the formerly Palestinian part of Tel Aviv that today is home to both Israelis and Palestinians. The slogans asserted that “Maccabi Haifa doesn’t want Arabs on the team,” “Death to Arabs,” and “Rabbi Kahane was right,” a reference to the late leader of the outlawed extreme right-wing Jewish Defence League (JDL) who was assassinated in New York in 1990. The perpetrators signed the slogans as ?Haifa supporters.?
Militant soccer fan racism is encouraged by far-right wing politicians such as National Union deputy Michael Ben-Ari, a proponent of expelling all Palestinians from Israel, who this year proposed legislation that would require members of Israeli national sport teams to sing the national anthem and recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The latter demand is rooted in an Israeli desire backed by Mr. Netanyahu to impose recognition of the Jews? historic right to settle Palestine and block recognition of Palestinian rights to return to lands within Israel?s pre-1967 borders.
Mr. Borowitz noted that ?Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, who cultivates an image as a tolerant, modern public servant, has yet to utter a word on this topic. He has done nothing to alter Beitar’s racist, discriminatory policy. Avi Luzon, chairman of the Israel Football Association, also remains inert on this issue; and the association’s court has never lifted a finger to challenge Beitar’s racism. Meantime, Israel’s media continues to cover the team’s games, and barely addresses the racism issue. Could an English or French soccer squad get away without putting a black or Jewish player on the field throughout its history? How would its fans respond to that? Would football associations in such countries countenance such blatantly racist policy??
Mr. Borowitz notes further that Jerusalem?s 280,000 Palestinian residents contributed to the NIS 100,000,000 ($27 million) in taxpayer?s money allocated for stadium renovations this year. ?Yet this contribution does not entitle the city’s Arabs to representation, even of the most minimal sort, on Jerusalem’s sole team in the nation’s top league,? Mr. Borowitz said.
The importance of Palestinian players to Israeli soccer was driven home to Israelis in 2005 when Abbas Suan, a devout Muslim who refused to sing the Hatikva before a game, achieved for a brief moment what politicians in more than a half-century had not: he united Israeli Jews and Arabs by securing with a last minute equalizer against Ireland Israel?s first chance in 35 years to qualify for a world cup. The game earned him the nickname The Equalizer and made him an Israeli hero; his cheery face and toothy smile featured in ads for the state lottery.
That sense of unity was short-lived. When Suan set foot on the pitch in Israel a week later as captain of Bnei Sakhnin, an Israeli Palestinian team, Jewish fans of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel?s most nationalistic club, booed him every time he touched the ball. ?Suan, You Don?t Represent US,? blared a giant banner in the stadium. Fans shouted, ?We hate all Arabs.?
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer