An Arab Player at Betar Jerusalem? Forget It!

Wisam Isami knows that he will never play for Betar Jerusalem. It has been some two-and-a-half years since he underwent the traumatic experience during the early days of the reign of coach Eli Guttman and owner Gad Zeevi two seasons ago, and he still has nightmares about it.

Isami joined a Betar pre-season training camp so that Guttman could try him out; and about 10 weeks later, after working out with the star-studded side the coach and his boss, Zeevi, had put together, the young Druze player was eagerly awaiting news of what he could expect during the upcoming campaign.

"I asked Eli about my future after a practice game against Ashdod SC and he said that I could sit down to discuss my contract with the management. A few days later, I got the message that they were letting me go. It's clear to me that it was because I am an Arab," Isami says.

Even the fact that he served for three years in the Israel Defense Forces and still does reserve duty has made no difference. Today, Isami plays for Third Division side Kafr Samia.

"It's difficult for me to talk about what happened to me there," he says. "Friends told me they saw nasty things written about me on the Internet. Fans threatened not to buy season tickets if I became the first Arab at Betar Jerusalem. Some came to training sessions with placards saying things against me; and most of the management and staff, except for Guttman, behaved quite strangely toward me," he recalls.

"Guttman said that he had decided to release me on professional grounds; but it's clear to me that this was not the real reason."

Since the time that Betar and Isami went their separate ways, nothing has changed at the club. Some 63 years after its establishment, Betar is still one of the only soccer clubs in the country never to have had an Arab player on its roster.

In the 1950s, there were many Arab soccer clubs already playing in the lower leagues; but with the communities still divided, it was unthinkable that an Arab could play for a Jewish club.

Bulus Bulus, a Christian Arab, was an exception when he played for Hapoel Haifa.

Ehud Federman, Betar's current treasurer and a star of the team in the 1950s and early 1960s, recalls the feeling at the time: "There was never an anti-Arab attitude on the part of either the management or the fans; but there was also never a question about an Arab player joining our ranks.

"Jerusalem was a small place then; there weren't any top Arab players around who were turned away because Betar didn't want them," Federman recounts.

The link between Betar and the right wing, particularly the Likud, came about in the 1970s, when the club became one of the major forces in local club soccer. It coincided with the rise of the Likud as a major political force.

In 1976, on the eve of Menachem Begin's rise to power as leader of the Likud, Betar won the State Cup and top politicians, including ministers, could be seen quite regularly at matches and training sessions. Uri Malmillian and Danny Neuman, the club's stars of the day, were red-hot items and any photo opportunity with either one of them was worth a great deal in electoral terms.

One of the first Arab players to suffer at the hands of the Betar faithful was Ali Othman, a Muslim Arab from Beit Safafa who played for Betar's arch enemy of the day, Hapoel Jerusalem. Othman, who played in the 1970s and early 1980s, was the first successful Arab player in the top division.

Current Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, who was chairman of the club for many years remembers: "The Betar fans did not like Othman and his own statements in the media did not help bring the communities together. But in the 1980s, there weren't many opportunities [to hire Arab players], as there were so few of them about.

"Those who made it to the top division chose other clubs. Zahi Armeli, who came from Shfaram, went to Maccabi Haifa; but it was clear that this would be the case. Rifat Turk played for Hapoel Tel Aviv and Ali Othman played for Hapoel Jerusalem. That was it," Rivlin explains.

Betar's current team manager, Avram Levy, also rejects the claim that there is a policy at the club not to include Arabs. "The fact that there is no Arab player is simply chance," he says. "I negotiated with Ali Othman to move from Hapoel to Betar and we have talked to Walid Badir and Najwan Grayeb, who chose for their own reasons not to play for Betar. Believe me, there has never been any directive from above not to recruit Arab players," Levy says.

Despite the attempts by the club's senior officials to calm the feelings of the fans, it appears that they do indeed fear such an eventuality.

Nir Bokovza, one of Betar's most fervent supporters explains: "Betar is strongly identified with the right wing and there are fears that an Arab player in the ranks would lead to unfavorable reactions [among the fans].

"However, we will not refuse to take on a top-class player such as Sali Tuamah or Walid Badir. But such a move can only be made with a strong coach at the helm - somebody like Eli Ohana.

"Ohana did it at Bnei Yehuda with Salah Hassarma, a good player who will fight on the pitch and will be accepted eventually. After he scores his first goal, even the hooligans will stop making threats; I am certain of this," Bokovza says.

But even if the fans are willing to accept an Arab player, the recent words of current coach Eli Cohen make it a very distant possibility. In an interview with Army Radio on December 12, Cohen said: "I am in favor of including all players of all creeds and religions, Bosnians, Muslims; they should be good players. Betar has a policy that needs to be followed; but in order to break the line, it will require a great deal of courage.

"A Musilm player should be brought in, but he will need to be tough mentally; and only then will the crowd understand that there is life beyond extremism. All over the world, [clubs] take the street's opinion into account. We must also do this," Cohen told the radio station.

Federman, who knows the Betar crowd well, believes nevertheless that bringing about a change is possible. "Most Betar fans perceive Arab sentiments toward them as being hostile, and they react accordingly. I believe, however, that the inclusion of an Arab player in the club may happen, but only in the long term. When it does, we will know that we have achieved a major aim," he says.