“It’s not racism. They just shouldn’t be here.”
Not even in the earliest days of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers did Brooklyn’s white fans walk out after number 42 stole a base or hit a home run. The Brooklyn faithful’s love of “Dem Bums” trumped any racism that simmered in the stands. What does it say that sixty-six years later, Israeli fans of the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem have not evolved to postwar-Brooklyn standards of human decency?
Earlier this season, Beitar Jersulam broke their own version of the “color line” by signing the first two Muslim players in team history: Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev. Predictably, Beitar’s supporters were madder than the NRA in a school zone. Boos have rained down on Sadayev and Kadiyev every time they’ve taken the field or touched the ball. Several members of a team fan club flew a banner that read, “Beitar is pure forever.” Two others attempted to burn down the team offices. This pales, however, next to what happened when Sadayev scored his first goal for the team last week. After the striker found glory, hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans simply stood up and walked out. Even by soccer standards, where racism on the pitch is a continual plague, this organized nature of the action was shocking.
As one 19-year-old fan told The Independent, “The reaction to the Muslim players being here is not racist. But the club’s existence is under threat. Beitar is a symbol for the whole country.” Another said, “It’s not racism, they just shouldn’t be here…. Beitar Jerusalem has always been a clean club, but now it’s being destroyed—many of the other players are thinking of leaving because of the Muslim players being here,”
Moshe Zimmermann, a sports historian at Hebrew University, told The New York Times that he sees something darker at work in the soccer stands than just hooligans taking fandom too far: “People in Israel usually try to locate Beitar Jerusalem as some kind of the more extreme fringe; this is a way to overcome the embarrassment. The fact is that the Israeli society on the whole is getting more racist, or at least more ethnocentric, and this is an expression.”
If we accept Zimmerman’s statement as true, that Beitar holds a mirror up to the entire country, then its actions in recent years become all the more frightening. Last March after a game, hundreds of Beitar supporters flooded a shopping mall in West Jerusalem, brutally assaulting a group of Palestinian custodians while chanting “Death to the Arabs.” Mohammed Yusef, one of the cleaners who was part of cleaning service, described it as “a mass lynching attempt.” The next day’s headline in Haaretz says as much: “Hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans beat up Arab workers in mall; no arrests.”
While Beitar has been given a great deal of leeway by authorities when carrying out acts of intimidation, it has also become somewhat of an international embarrassment. Last year, Dan Ephron of Newsweek wrote about the team with the sub-headline, “Jerusalem’s favorite football team has hiring policies reminiscent of Apartheid and Jim Crow.” The article, which has nary a quote from any Palestinians, does cite an Israeli soccer writer named Yoav Borowitz. Ephron writes:
Borowitz likens Beitar to the white-only rugby teams of South Africa during the apartheid era, a comparison most Israelis would find repugnant. In a recent blog post, Borowitz vowed to no longer cover Beitar and called on other journalists to do the same. “A soccer club that’s unwilling to sign Arabs belongs in the trash bin of history,” he wrote. “I myself have written more than a few articles about Beitar.… I won’t do it anymore.”
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The international news of Beitar fans now shunning their own goal-scoring players also comes at a very unwelcome time for Israeli soccer. Israel is the host of the 2013 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Under-21 Championship this June. The decision, however, has already been subject to constant protest including the occupation of UEFA’s offices, Palestinian-rights protesters storming the pitch during games and the formation of an organization called “Red Card Israeli Racism.”
Israel’s repression of the Palestinian national soccer team, including the imprisonment and assassination of players and the shelling of the team’s office in last fall’s bombing of Gaza, has also stirred not only activists but players and even FIFA to action. In 2010, even UEFA President Michel Platini threatened Israel with expulsion from FIFA if it continued to undermine soccer in Palestine. Platini said, “Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behaviour.” What maddens people is that by holding the Under-21s in Israel, it actually seems like the country is being rewarded.
The great power of sport historically is that it has provided space for marginalized people to find a voice, as well as a setting for all of us to discover our common humanity through play. What does it say about Israel in the twenty-first century that a team like Beitar Jerusalem can not only survive but thrive? What does it say that Israel still gets to host the UEFA Under-21 championships despite interfering with Palestinian efforts to field a team?
What does it say that sports are now enmeshed in the political conflicts in the region? If nothing else, it tells us that not even sports can provide escape, respite or a safe haven from the pressures of occupation. It also tells us that seeking justice on the playing field and in the soccer stands in Israel is also about seeking justice for the Palestinian people and no cultural arena can be exempt from this process. I know what side Jackie Robinson would be on, and it wouldn’t be with the so-called fans who hate the ethnicity of a player more than they love a goal for their team.