An Israeli first division soccer team whose most staunch fans chant “Death to the Arabs” faces a crisis of introspection following a landmark deal that saw the club partially sold to an unlikely new owner: an Arab sheikh.
Beitar Jerusalem, the only Israeli team that has never lined up an Arab player, has been grappling with the news that, as of this month, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, is now owns 50% of the club. .
“The deal has turned many fans against the club,” said Moar Ifrach, a loyal supporter, as he sat with friends on the wooden bleachers at the Beitar training grounds on a rainy December day.
While Ifrach backs the deal, which he hopes can give Beitar the success of another club powered by Gulf money, Manchester City, he feels a small cohort of extreme fans will never accept it. “The reputation for racism did not come out of nowhere,” he said.
A week earlier, in the first training session since the purchase was announced, members of the far-right fan base known as “La Familia” were accused of spraying anti-Arab slogans on the walls and yelling “Fuck bin! Khalifa ”. Police, some working undercover, said they had arrested four people.
A member of La Familia, who asked not to be cited or identified, said the sale threatened the Judaism not only of the club but of the entire city of Jerusalem, a city divided between Jews and Arabs but controlled by the Israeli government.
The agreement was one of the first fruits of a diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates after the two countries signed agreements to establish formal ties.
Backed by the fervently pro-Israeli Trump administration, four Arab states, including Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, have announced their intentions to stop rejecting Israel, which has long been isolated in the Middle East by its crippling occupation of the Palestinian territories. .
Moni Barush, Beitar’s chief executive, said by phone before a game Thursday that the deal was the “right way to spread peace.” “It is a good opportunity for the club and for Israeli football. It is a good opportunity to end the racism of a minority of fans. “
In a ad Posted on his website, Beitar said Sheikh Hamad would invest nearly £ 70 million in the club over the next decade.
Moshe Hogeg, a 39-year-old Israeli cryptocurrency entrepreneur who acquired the team in 2018, said in a message to the Observer that he and Sheikh Hamad, 50, “want to show the world that Jews and Muslims can do beautiful things together and inspire the young generation.”
Still, the deal could be less about coexistence or even the club itself and more about raising political capital by the UAE with its new ally, Israel, and its supporters in Washington.
Among its supporters, Beitar Jerusalem boasts swaths of Israel’s political elite, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, used to be the club’s manager.
In comments that undoubtedly pleased the Israeli government, Sheikh Hamad referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a controversial statement considering the status of the divided city a central issue for Palestinians.
While Trump acknowledges Israel’s claim, most governments around the world do not do so because he dismisses Palestinian aspirations that the eastern neighborhoods of the holy city could form their future capital under a peace deal.
It remains to be seen whether the diplomatic détente will lead to a profound change at the club. Sheikh Hamad has said that the club’s doors are open to “all talents” regardless of race or religion.
However, a Nigerian Muslim who joined the team in 2004 soon resigned. Years later, when the club signed two Chechen Muslims, the players were verbally abused at games and fans set the club’s offices on fire.
A 2015 documentary about the incident, called Forever Pure, led to a reckoning for some fans after being confronted with images of racism.
Maya Zinshtein, the film’s director, said the release prompted such ruthless death threats from La Familia supporters that at one point she even asked her mother to hide.
“It started with messages on Facebook. One said, ‘the next movie will be about his funeral.’
However, the documentary also saw what Zinshtein called a “painful” understanding from most fans, who she believes are not racist. “I think all the Beitar fans saw this movie,” he said. “Movies cannot change anything; you need people … They looked at themselves and felt ashamed. “
This helped to strengthen a group of fans who had formed a group called “the majority that does not shut up,” who sing against La Familia at games. Effi Gorodetzer, a 30-year-old who has been a fan since the age of six, is a member. Wearing a yellow and black Beitar hat, he said he used to sing the xenophobic slogans himself, but realized it was poisonous. “For 15 years I have been fighting against that,” he said.
Zinshtein said there have been other recent positive developments, such as the signing last year of a Nigerian player, Ali Mohamed, who is of Muslim descent.
“We don’t have an Arab player yet, but I think changes take time. It’s so ingrained, almost like it’s part of the club’s DNA. “
The recent sale, he said, was surprising and even a bit funny: “Karma unfolds in a very interesting way.”
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