'Anti-Arab Group La Familia Is Only as Violent as Israel's Leaders Allow It to Be'

The militant La Familia organization of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans has been the subject of study by Ben-Gurion University doctoral student Sophia Solomon. Her conclusion: The group’s violence benefits both the team and the politicians

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Members of La Familia at a recent demonstration in Jerusalem in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Members of La Familia at a recent demonstration in Jerusalem in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
Ayelett Shani

Why did you decide to study La Familia, and what did you hope to discover?

I feel a close connection to the world of sports. I grew up in a soccer home. My younger brother plays for Beitar Be’er Sheva, my father played for Maccabi Be’er Sheva. I have relatives who are Beitar fans and were in the kometz [“handful” – as people formerly referred to the team’s most zealous supporters], so I saw the phenomenon of fanatic fans from the inside and close up from an early age. What I wanted to understand is how the activity of fanatic soccer fans, with their prominent displays of violence, is consistent with the framework of a democratic society and the values it sanctifies.

The focus is on how a democracy allows for the existence of an organization that subverts its values.

Organizations of fanatical fans abuse principles such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. It’s not necessarily conscious exploitation. My investigation of how the phenomenon manifests in world soccer revealed two [basic] types of organizations like this. On the one hand, there are the “hooligans” in England, and on the other, the “ultras” in Italy. The difference lies in the way they employ violence. To put it simplistically, the [English] hooligans are more like street thugs. Their violence is less organized, more spontaneous. For example, they don’t have organized transportation to games. They pack into public transport to get to the stadiums, and frequently the fights even erupt there [en route].

You describe the hooligans as a phenomenon that’s not connected to the club they support, whereas the ultras maintain a relationship with it.

The hooligans are anarchists, they’re against everything, and as such they don’t advocate forging ties with the club itself. The team [management] is not a consideration in their decisions and behavior. The ultras, in contrast, are in contact with the club itself: They receive tickets to sell on its behalf, they coordinate and organize transportation to games and so on. That connection is necessary, because their fandom consists in part of visibility on the playing field – huge displays including signs, music, chanting – which demands regular coordination with the club.

La Familia is something of a hybrid of the two: On the one hand, they are pretty much below the radar, yet they maintain ties with the club. La Familia also has other dimensions – volunteering, community activity – but the violence, unfortunately, overshadows everything.

Let’s look at the history of La Familia, which was founded in 2005. What was behind its establishment?

What arose in my conversations with members of the organization was the [national] security situation at the time. The memory of the second intifada was still fresh; the plan calling for disengagement [Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip] was in the air. It was a period of security instability. Whenever there was a terrorist attack, whenever something happened, these people arrived to vent their anger. The violence was always there. Always. Relative to other places, the violence in Israel is moderate.

What was the organization’s declared intent when it was founded?

There are two significant slogans: The first is “We are the [most] racist team in the country” and the second is, “Beitar, forever pure.” They even have a song that ends with the words, “We are the most racist team in the country.”

That’s their organizing principle?

Absolutely. They will tell you that some of it comes from the legacy of [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky [the founder of the Revisionist Zionist Betar movement], but that’s not the right interpretation.

A very broad interpretation.

Sophia Solomon.
Sophia Solomon.Credit: Emil Salman

Not to mention far-reaching to the point of meaningless. But when they declare, “We are the country’s most racist team,” and nobody bats an eyelid, that says a lot about the attitude toward them and the boundaries that have never been set.

La Familia hit the headlines in 2013 in connection with Beitar Jerusalem’s signing of two Chechen Muslims. The fans went berserk. [Russian-born businessman] Arcadi Gaydamak, the club’s owner at the time, portrayed the move as having educational value. In the 2017 documentary film “Forever Pure,” he says something like, “I wanted to educate Israeli society.”

Gaydamak was very disappointed when he didn’t succeed in translating Beitar’s popularity into political clout when he ran for mayor of Jerusalem [unsuccessfully, in 2008]. From his point of view, he knew that what would most destroy the team from within was to bring in Muslim players. It was an act of revenge, and the fans themselves knew it, too. He knew it would stir things up, and the fact is that in the end the two players left.

Symbol-turned-pariah

Beitar Jerusalem has never hired an Israeli Arab player – it’s the only club in the [premier] league with no Arabs – even though it’s a mixed city.

They stick to that approach piously. In the past they have even said as much publicly. Some of the first Beitar players came from the Etzel [pre-state underground militia, led by Menachem Begin; the team was founded in 1936], so that the tradition of extreme views against the Arab population was always there. It’s innate.

It sounds so off-the-wall in the present climate, when everything is about political correctness. Yet, it’s still happening: There will never be an Arab player on Beitar Jerusalem.

Which just shows how much power the fans have.

Is it because the team is afraid of how the fans will react?

That’s part of it. When the fan base consists mainly of people who have no problem beating up anyone who happens to pass by on the street – it could end with murder, you know. So you have to be careful. It’s true that that may sound totally wacky in the current reality, but the fact is that so far no formula has been found that would make possible the club’s signing of Muslim or Arab players. [Ali Mohamed, from Nigeria, who now plays for the team, says he is a Christian, even though his father was a Muslim.]

The tail wagging the dog.

Yes. Without the pressure from the fans, the Chechen players would have remained on the team. They were good players who could have grown here and strengthened Beitar, but they were compelled to leave. That reflects the balance of forces between the organization and the team – because the team simply doesn’t have control it. Whenever someone tried to oppose La Familia, the leader of the attempt paid a price in the end. Take the case of Itzik Kornfein, for example. [Kornfein, a longtime goalie for Beitar, served as the team’s general manager from 2007 to 2013.]

Kornfein’s story is truly amazing. He was the symbol of the team. Its success owes a lot to him, and not only in the period when he played for them – and yet he became a pariah.

La Familia made him a pariah. His clash with them cost him his job. He declared that he would not take his orders from a group of extremist fans, and in the end he was fired.

That’s an interesting point: Where does their [ultimate] loyalty lie? Where does identity lie? With Beitar or with La Familia?

The organization cultivates its self-identity, and it’s a very narrow identity, different from the identity of a normative Beitar fan.

In other words, if someone in La Familia has to choose between the team and the organization, he’ll choose the organization.

Today, yes. Today they sanctify the organization and its goals above the team itself. You can see that both in their activity and in the fact that they have no problem putting the team at risk of being punished [by the league] for their behavior. You have to understand that the commitment to the organization is demanding. It’s a full-time job. During the week they’re busy making preparations for the next match. They get signs printed. They coordinate clothing and seating. Think what it means to manage an audience of thousands, who will rise to their feet together, sing the same song.

Dudu Mizrahi [a member of La Familia who became a left-wing social activist] explained to me once that it only starts with soccer, but the deeper you get, the more marginal the sport becomes. He told me that he went to games and had no time to watch was happening on the field.

The thing is that the activity of La Familia goes beyond the bounds of the field and spills over into other places. As we saw, for example, in the episode of Elor Azaria [the so-called Hebron shooter, the soldier who killed an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in 2016], when the group campaigned in his defense.

Chechen soccer players Gabriel Kadiev and Zaur Sadayev.
Chechen soccer players Gabriel Kadiev and Zaur Sadayev.Credit: AFP

I’m now investigating the Elor Azaria story. There’s this tradition that La Familia would sing to its members who were entering the army that the goal is to pump a bullet into the head of an Arab. It’s related to the calls for “Death to the Arabs,” of course. That’s exactly what Elor Azaria did. Fulfilled the “vision.” It’s of no interest to La Familia whether we have a humane army or what the judicial system says about it – the main thing is for this ideology, which exceeds moral values, to be realized. So there will be unreserved support on their part for every Israel Defense Forces soldier who does something like that.

By the way, they will support soldiers in every case. On their Facebook pages you can sometimes see a picture of a soldier, let’s say, offering water to an elderly Palestinian, with the [ironic] caption, “Hats off to this soldier, look how he’s behaving to an Arab” – they’re capable of patting him on the back for that, because he’s a soldier in uniform. They sanctify soldiers in uniform. It’s part of the nationalist agenda.

The nationalist agenda is also more important than sports, more important than the team.

Totally. Think what they did in the incident involving the Chechen players. They burned down the place where the team displays its championship cups. Could there be anything more symbolic?

The ‘holy’ menorah

Let’s talk a bit about their recent show of violence in the demonstration outside the Tel Aviv home of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. They wrote explicitly, “Doormat leftists – the rules of the game are changing.” You draw a connection between this and the woman who stripped naked at the Knesset menorah statue at a recent demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unequivocally. The menorah incident was the catalyst. Her climbing up on the menorah drove them insane. Because for them the menorah is a holy symbol. Excuse the comparison, but it really reminds me of the anger that the cartoons of Mohammed in France in 2015 aroused in the Arab world.

How so?

Because they worship the menorah. It’s the team’s symbol. It’s the state’s symbol. La Familia are the only fans who sing [all four verses of] the national anthem all the way through in every game. Every word. From their perspective, an affront like that against the holy Jewish national symbol is an insane red line – and they took to the streets. You also have to remember that it’s hard for La Familia to cope with the fact that games are currently being played without a crowd. They tried to go to the training sessions, they tried to watch the games together on big screens, etc., but it wasn’t enough. That same night, when Maccabi fans also took to the streets, it was another catalyst, because part of the DNA of violent fans’ organizations is to clash with other organizations. Now consider this: For half a year there haven’t been any games [because of the health crisis], no opportunity to cut loose – and finally an opportunity arises.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu frames that violent event as “a squabble between soccer fans,” what is he saying?

If it were a squabble between fans, it would have taken place in or near a stadium, and not in the public space. Secondly, who are the fans’ organizations – don’t they have a political affiliation? I supposed he was trying to say that the incident did not reflect the right wing, that the right is not violent like extremist soccer fans. But those fans don’t wait around for anyone. They aren’t waiting for orders either from the prime minister or the president of the European Union of Football Associations – they act on their own.

The politicians’ flirting with La Familia doesn’t begin or end with the famous 2018 video of then-Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev standing alongside Beitar soccer fans as they chanted anti-Arab slogans.

It’s good for the campaign. We who study the politics of sports follow this closely, and you can definitely see that in the past few years the stadium has replaced the shuk [Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda outdoor market]. Before an election, you see politicians in the Beitar stands in the stadium.

But the politicians’ real sympathy is for Beitar, not La Familia.

Yes and no, because Beitar represents the middle ground. It doesn’t condemn La Familia. If the club were to state that it’s unwilling to be identified with La Familia, you wouldn’t see people from the organization hugging politicians during a game. In the end, it’s those in power at the organization who dictate the intensity of La Familia’s violence. When La Familia moves outside [the stadium], it is actually defending the right and the radical right. When you see them roaming the streets and doing whatever they want, you understand that the party they are identified with, Likud, has a lot of clout.

That’s the “music” of the Netanyahu government: Stir things up and feign innocence; fan the flames and dissociate.

It’s very convenient to have La Familia do the dirty work. When shouts of “Death to the Arabs” are heard during matches, the fans who do the shouting are supposedly ejected. But I spoke with many fans who’ve been thrown out, and it’s clear that they returned to the stands and no one checked and no one heard anything. The sign “Beitar, forever pure” that appears in the grandstand is huge. A sign of that size is not something that’s prepared at the last moment. So, is it credible that the team’s management, which has at certain times allocated a room to La Familia, didn’t know, didn’t hear?

Members of La Familia at a recent demonstration in Jerusalem in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Members of La Familia at a recent demonstration in Jerusalem in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman

And if we assume – and it’s not an easy assumption – that the club was taken by surprise by it all, why don’t they deal with it when it happens? Why is the sign taken down only after the pictures have been taken, the message has been transmitted clearly and sharply, and the damage done? When incidents involving serious violence occur, and you don’t see it being discussed by a Knesset committee, or hear a statement from the culture and sports minister, or some sort of condemnation – it’s simply collaboration.

There have been hearings. There was even a demand to outlaw them.

In the rare and exceptional cases when violence in sports reaches the Knesset agenda, it’s treated as a marginal or negligible phenomenon. They don’t understand that it’s an extremely serious problem.

Don’t understand or don’t want to understand?

It’s convenient not to understand. After all, legislation could be passed stipulating that fans’ organizations of this sort must take the form of a registered association, so that they are subject to supervision. The thing is, if a law like that were to be passed, La Familia would fall apart. As long as that is not on the agenda, they will keep going. A violent nationalist organization has been operating for 15 years, and no one bats an eye. There’s been a right-wing government here for 10 years – make the calculation of whom it serves.

The image of Miri Regev in the grandstand is not what attests to the politicians’ involvement. That can be seen in the fact that the group wasn’t disbanded even after very extreme incidents, such as the disturbances in Charleroi [in Belgium, in 2015], when its members rioted and threw incendiary devices on the playing field], following which they got a bit of a slap on the wrist and then went back to their regular ways. It was to be expected that they would allow themselves to behave like this in the recent period. They know no one will say anything. They know there will be no sanctions. That even if, by chance, they are investigated or an attempt is made to deal with them, the sanctions will be against individual fans. Nothing will happen to the organization itself.

It’s also not clear where the authority to deal with them lies; as you said, its extraterritorial.

It’s not regularized, and that’s convenient for everyone. When an organization declares itself to be violent, a terrorist group – it’s outlawed. That’s what was done, for example, with Kahane Chai [an organization established by the son of ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane]. But here the organization is not regularized. How do you take action against something that doesn’t exist legally? Who do you put on trial? There’s no single entity. As of now, I haven’t seen any judge in Israel who has addressed the question of how it’s possible that an organization like La Familia exists. But Beitar Jerusalem, like other teams, is partly budgeted by the state. In other words, the state can impose economic sanctions, too. As long as it doesn’t, either directly or through the local government, it implicitly consents. If the state were to announce that it’s no longer underwriting soccer clubs that have violent fans, maybe something would happen. I would not be surprised in the least to discover that the organization strikes fear into the club itself and threatens it – that the club is their captive. I’ve never seen an owner of Beitar who’s said, “No, I don’t think this is appropriate.”

Eli Tabib tried, and also the current owner, Moshe Hogeg.

Everyone tries. Kornfein tried, too. But they can’t do it. The fact is that the phenomenon still exists. When there’s no legislation and no one to complain to, the club owners can actually decide when it’s good for them to accept the adulation and when not to: When they want full grandstands, ticket sales, singing and drums during the game, they turn a blind eye. Now, for example, when there’s no crowd at games [due to coronavirus regulations], relations are lukewarm. I have seen La Familia people within the boundaries of the field, getting full assistance from the club to haul their equipment and do whatever they have to. Assistance like that from the team to the organization legitimizes it.

I’m pretty sure that the Beitar management doesn’t sleep well because of La Familia, as the organization frequently dictates how things go. Sports should be open to everyone, that’s the great objective, and as long as there is so much violence on the field and its immediate vicinity, children and women won’t come to the stadium. I, as a woman who was with La Familia in the stands during my research, can tell you that it was a very aggressive environment.

Were you scared?

Yes. In the La Familia grandstand, no one is seated; they all stand on the seats. Anyone who wants to sit won’t be able to see the field. There’s a huge mass of people who are either sad or happy, and both the expressions of happiness and the expressions of anger are powerful, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to take it. One time I sat very close to the barrier between La Familia and the other team’s fans – it was frightening.

What did you see when you left the game and joined up with them?

I saw how they came out humbled, after a loss. Your heart goes out to them, but I also felt tense, maybe even scared. Many of them covered their faces with hoods, like the hooligans. I also saw that the ones who were involved in the fights weren’t the ones who roared in the stadium, or drummed, but actually the quieter ones. I saw how, before the game, everyone tries to help everyone get in, including those who have no money. Look, every club in the world wants fans like those, but the price is violence.

The question is what the true basis of the violence is. It’s not violence meant to defend the team. On the contrary: The team is just the excuse.

Israeli society is militaristic to begin with, violence is not foreign to it, so in soccer all the more so. The violence of La Familia expresses something different: It brings existing rifts, disputes, disparities to the surface.

Violence under the aegis of the state. We were taught that the state has a monopoly on violence. It turns out that there’s a competitive market. It turns out that La Familia is also allowed to use violence.

It’s allowed because someone allows it. Very simple. If someone were to limit them, they wouldn’t do it. They allow themselves to behave as they do, because they know they’re allowed to.

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