Arab and Jewish Fans Square Off at Teddy Stadium

Nir Tsadok
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Nir Tsadok

A bus with a sign bearing the word "IDF" was stuck in traffic, along with several other vehicles, in the traffic jam near Teddy Stadium on Monday before the game between Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Umm al-Fahm. When it finally arrived, a noisy gang poured out. There weren't any soldiers on the bus, nor any Jews. "Allah hu Akbar!" the Umm al-Fahm fans cried as they stepped out into the freezing cold of Jerusalem and into the most loaded game this season has known so far. The IDF sign was probably no more than a diversion.

Thus the stage was set for a standoff between two Israeli soccer teams, where thanks to several recent incidences of blatant racism among Beitar fans, tensions were at a boiling point.

Police took no chances before the cup game. A patrol car was placed in each of the junctions on the road leading up to Jerusalem, just in case something went wrong. Intelligence sources said trouble was expected, and several precautionary steps were taken. Several dozen of Beitar's more extremist fans received a phone call in the morning, in which an authoritative voice told them to sit this one out and not attend the game. Earlier this week, the club's chairman, Itzik Kornfein, requested to hold the game without fans at all, since the club has received endless fines and punishments, including the docking of league points, following racist chants and violence aimed at Arabs, including those who were part of the stadium's maintenance crew. Bietar's current financial situation is bleak enough without extra fines. Kornfein backed down after he was publically criticized, and the game went ahead as planned.

Apart from the regular tension accompanying Beitar games against clubs from the Arab community, owner Arkadi Gaydemak added fuel to the fire with his announcement that he plans to sign two Chechnyan Muslim players. No Arab players have ever been signed by Beitar, and only a handful of Muslim's played for the club in its 76 years. The religion of one of them, Victor Pacha, was revealed only after he signed. Another Muslim, Nigerian Ibrahim Nadallah, asked to leave after taking abuse from fans. More than a decade has passed since Nadallah fled for his life, and meanwhile, Bietar stayed "pure," as the banner raised in Saturday's league game, read. Christians, by the way, are well-received by the club's fans.

Beitar's racism has two layers. The first is pride. When the team comes out to the pitch for the warm-up before games, fans sing: "Here it comes, the racist team of the country." If the fans are proud of their racism, what good will preaching do?

The second layer is denial. All of Beitar's management teams, throughout the years, have preferred to ignore the subject. Israeli Arab players have become an integral part of Israeli soccer. Many of them became stars who played in Europe and found their way to the national team, but still were never signed by the club most identified with the Israeli political right wing. Club officials have routinely said that, at least during their time, there simply weren't any Arab players who was needed by the team. A strange coincidence of timing, don't you think?

Yuval Naim, who coached Beitar last season, admitted that he was fired also because two of his last three losses with the team were against Arab teams. And the struggle for the club's identity is back in the limelight. Some of Beitar's fans deplore and oppose the racist chants, but their voice is hardly heard amid the din.

At the stadium on Monday night, the Umm al-Fahm fans burst out singing long before their players came on the pitch for the most important game of their lives.

"Don't waste all your strength," one Beitar fan suggested from the other side of the fence separating the two sets of fans. He wasn't worried they might harm their vocal cords, but more concerned with the new stand that is yet to be built. The Arabs, that fan believes, should still focus on construction. With his friends, he joked that they should boil him some good coffee. The Umm al-Fahm fans didn't hear that conversation, but sensed the drift. "War," they cried out, anger bulging in their eyes and their veins. As the loud boos filled the stadium when the Umm al-Fahm players appeared, it seemed that even the most militant fans weren't seriously interested in a clash.

On the opposite side of the stadium in the Eastern Stand, home to the more extremist Beitar fans, a large banner read: "Beitar fans against violence and racism." It stayed aloft only until the game began, when some fans probably noticed what was actually written on the black and yellow banner.

Before the game began, the regular dynamics were present between two sets of fans, with one group bursting in song, and the other answering back. In this case, naturally, the songs were political. "No place like Umm al-Fahm, the best in the world," the guests sang, quoting a line from the TV series "Asfur," which, ironically, was created by two Beitar fans. The home fans retorted with: "The Temple Mount is in our hands," a cry which intensified when they realized it struck a serious nerve.

Umm al-Fahm fans then switched to Arabic, and briefly raised a Palestinian flag, which was probably smuggled into the stadium in someone's underpants. Israeli flags were all over the Beitar stands, and thus, each side withdrew into its nationality, which defined the game more than the colors of the teams themselves.

Incidentally, Maccabi isn't the largest club in Umm al-Fahm, but for this occasion, other club's fans joined them for the trip to Jerusalem.

On the pitch, Beitar, who lost in last year's cup to an Arab team, didn't have any problems. Eran Levy scored in the opening minutes, and four goals followed to make it an easy evening. This season, after several difficult years, Beitar is once again one of the leading Israeli teams, perhaps allowing the fans to react to each goal as if were proof of their ideological superiority. Thus, MK Ahmed Tibi, who attended the match, was booed after every goal.

Still, apart from the banter, anyone who expected Monday's match to lead to violence turned out to be wrong. Beitar fans refrained from some of their favorite songs. "To wipe out the seed of Amalek," and "Salim Toama is a terrorist," were notably absent from their repertoire, perhaps due to fact that the fans knew that they were being scrutinized. Or maybe those morning phone calls had done the trick.

On the whole, Beitar fans behaved themselves, while it was the Umm al-Fahm fans that seized the opportunity to unleash their frustration at the calls they had heard, until Monday, only on TV.

Between the players there were no hard feelings, nor a language barrier. When Hen Azriel struck the post, he voiced his frustration with a sentence which consisted of more Arab than Hebrew words. Slang, it seems, like soccer, is understood by all Israelis.

Beitar Jerusalem fans show their team spirit.Credit: Nir Keidar