47 soccer hooligans supporting Beitar Jerusalem were arrested across Israel in the state’s latest attempt to combat homegrown extremism
Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem had been hoping last week to focus on its qualification run to the Europa League, after having successfully subdued already Bosnian and Cypriot sides.
It had to deal with the aftermath of a police sting instead.
Some context: Beitar Jerusalem was founded in 1938 and has become one of Israel’s most storied and successful teams. The team is a vestige of an era when Israeli sports were intensely political, when funding local soccer teams was another form of community organizing for the predominant political parties. Teams linked to Israel’s Labor movement had the prefix “Hapoel,” center-right teams the prefix “Maccabi,” and teams of the revisionist right “Beitar.”
There’s no equivalent in the United States. Sports rivalries here are geographic, with loyalty to the local team often the only thing that could unify an arch-conservative with an ultra-liberal.
Beitar Jerusalem has a vaunted spot in Israel’s right-wing, dating back to the Irgun paramilitaries on its squads of the 1940s and 50s to the Mizrahi (Jews from the Arab world) immigrants that flocked to support Beitar as a form of protest against Israel’s elitist Ashkenazim (Jews from central and eastern Europe). Israel’s current Prime Minister, right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu, is an avowed Beitar fan. Supporting the team is still a paramount qualification for an aspiring right-wing politician.
It’s become much tougher to do that in the last 11 years. Beitar has come under increasing pressure, from the Israeli media and from Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to hire an Arab player for the first time in its history, like every other prominent team in Israel has done. The team’s ownership in the last decade has attempted to bring in Arabs, but intense pressure from the fanbase, especially threats and acts of violence from a fringe of Italian mafia inspired ultras called La Familia, have made the club back down. Beitar’s former general manager, a retired goalie with 13 years of impressive service at Beitar, has likened the situation to La Familia having taken the club hostage with hateful, inciting rhetoric against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians that they follow up on with horrifying acts of violence.
Out of this amorphous group of rabid people are the guys that burned down the team’s trophy room after Beitar announced in 2013 that it would hire two muslim Chechen players — not even Arabs. In a manner eerily reminiscent of Nazi Germany, they unfurled a banner right after the signings, stubbornly protesting that “Beitar will remain forever pure.” In the summer of 2014 La Familia fans were the first suspects in the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager, an act of revenge that escalated into Israel’s operation that summer in Gaza. Last fall several La Familia members attacked another — Jewish — Israeli with an axe, putting him in critical condition.
For months and months, Israel’s politicians had talked tough on La Familia but had not matched the rhetoric with action. But it seems like they were just playing the waiting game. On the night of July 26 going into July 27, the Israeli police pulled the trigger on a nationwide sting operation resulting in the arrest of 47 of La Familia’s most infamous members. Nine of them are soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. A further 17 were arrested on July 28.
The preliminary details are spectacular. Four hundred law enforcement officials arrested the men in their homes. They were acting on information obtained over the course of a six-month investigation by an undercover police officer who had infiltrated the inner sanctum of an even more radical and criminal fringe of La Familia nicknamed “Hakometz,” or “the handful.” Some of the items police found in the possession of these La Familia members shocked them: 12 stun grenades, two tear gas grenades, two flares, 19 other improvised grenades, and a kilogram of explosives.
The sting has set the tone for a much more confrontational shift in the effort to curb fan violence, including but not limited to the right-wing, racist, anti-Arab, and neo-fascist stuff spewed by La Familia. Starting this season, a joint project between the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Culture and Sport will see rolled out a new anti-crime police unit explicitly dedicated to gathering intelligence and preventing soccer-related violence.
There’s no denying that Israeli soccer will benefit. The overt bigotry and violence condoned and/or glorified by La Familia, this hitherto unpublicized sub-group Hakometz, and other zealots have become an embarrassment to Israel’s relationship with the world.
What is happening now is akin to missing the forest for some really violent and racist trees.
Netanyahu said as much last summer, after violence they caused in Charleroi, Belgium during another round of Europa League qualifiers compelled him to denounce a small group of Beitar fans who had “besmirched Israel’s image.”
I can’t help but feel, though, that this needs to be complemented by action on other fronts, with what is happening now is akin to missing the forest for some really violent and racist trees. The content of their violence — axes, torching clubhouses, etc. — borders on cartoonish, and supporting it has never really been an option.
But it just feels like a half-measure. There’s a reason that the violence emanated out of Beitar. No other club with a national presence as big as Beitar’s has ever had a philosophy on which that of La Familia is even on the radar. Not even most of Beitar’s fans — they see La Familia as a detestable fringe hijacking their club. Some supporters have even become disgusted enough to form a fan-owned breakaway club, Beitar Nordia, to return back to the sportsmanship and competitive values Beitar initially represented.
But Beitar also represents the continuing legacy of Revisionist Zionism, which is predicated on the idea that violence and strength were the guarantors of Israel’s survival. Only from this baseline can hardline supporters of a proudly Jewish soccer team in Jerusalem, a front line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could a fringe of La Familia’s character emerge. What was more reasonably considered the case in 1948 does not hold in 2016.
It would rationally follow that the best way to combat La Familia would be to attack the mentality of which it is just an extreme, and the clearest symbol of it is Beitar’s long-enduring policy of refusing to hire an Arab player. When that issue is resolved, perhaps it can provoke the culture change at Beitar that would do a final disservice to the radicals.
Perhaps, though, like the many at Teddy who could have been subjected to La Familia’s tear gas had last week’s raids not occurred, I’m not holding my breath.