Israel Soccer Official Fired for Saying He 'Wouldn’t Accept a Muslim Player on the Team'

Beitar Jerusalem has never had an Arab player, and in the one season it hired a pair of Chechen Muslim players, hardcore fans reacted with violence

Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans watching a match against Arab team Maccabi Umm al-Fahm at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, 2013.
Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans watching a match against Arab team Maccabi Umm al-Fahm at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, 2013. Credit: Bernat Armangue/AP

A consultant for the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, who was hired only about 10 days ago, was fired on Wednesday after saying he “wouldn’t accept a Muslim player on the team” in an interview with the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

Beitar has never had an Arab player, and in the one season it hired a pair of Muslim players, hardcore fans reacted with violence.

The statement by Eli Cohen was not taken well in the club, which has been making efforts to combat its fans’ racism and change the team’s image. Cohen apologized and offered to resign, and club chairman Eli Ohana accepted his resignation.

Beitar has never hired an Arab player, as its violently racist La Familia fan club has made it clear it will not tolerate such a move. In the 2012-2013 season, after Beitar’s then-owner Arcadi Gaydamak brought two Muslim players of Chechen origin to the team, La Familia members burned down the team’s clubhouse in Jerusalem.

Cohen, a veteran coach, is quoted in the interview as saying: “I’m a realistic person. I’ve experienced personally what happened when Muslim players came five years ago, so I won’t take a Muslim player to Beitar. I’ve had numerous Arab and Muslim players on teams I’ve coached, from Hadera through Hapoel Tel Aviv to Maccabi Haifa. Anyone stupid who wants to label me a racist for it, can say whatever he likes.”

Last month Beitar was awarded an anti-racism prize for 2016-2017 from State President Reuven Rivlin, for reducing its fans’ racist, anti-Arab chants.

“Beitar Jerusalem’s soccer club is coping with challenges that are unequaled in the Israeli sports world,” the statement from the award ceremony said. “This year the club proved it is ready and able to wage an uncompromising battle against incitement and racism within its house, and is prepared to pay a price for it.”

The New Israel Fund, whose project “Kick It Out, Israel” monitors racism at soccer games, reported recently, “Since March, racist chants at the Beitar games have been met with boos by other fans wishing to silence the slurs. ... Financial incentives may also be at play. Beitar Jerusalem‘s reputation for having racist fans has cost it in sponsorship dollars. The team’s management has cracked down on the trend and some players, influenced by the change in attitude, have considered leaving the field when such chants are heard.”

About half a year ago team owner Eli Tabib said, “I want an Arab player in Beitar, why not?! In Kfar Sava I also had Arab players.”

Beitar’s Facebook page said “Cohen apologized to Ohana for the things he said and offered his resignation. In view of Cohen’s statements Ohana accepted his resignation.”

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