Jerusalem’s True Sporting Alternative

Hapoel’s first championship is a crucial step toward saving our city from the hate-mongers of Beitar.

Nir Keidar

I’ve been going to their matches for 28 years, in forlorn hope, but the moment on Thursday night that Hapoel Jerusalem captain Yotam Halperin hoisted the first State Championship plate we waited so long for, was already an anticlimax. My best moment was two hours earlier, upon entering the Pais Arena, seeing it full to the rafters like never before with 11,000 red Jerusalem supporters – a small moment of sanity and of unconditional love for my hometown.

Pundits have been calling it a championship with an asterisk. And they’re right. No, not because we didn’t meet the all-powerful Macabbi Tel Aviv in the finals after their surprise exit in the semis. Winning the trophy against a sympathetic and authentically Israeli team like Fattal Eilat, was much sweeter. A final with Maccabi would have become just another showdown with the old nemesis, diluting our victory with a bitter aftertaste of revenge.

Now we can still look forward to taking a championship off Maccabi in the future and each title will have its special place in the pantheon. Hapoel Jerusalem didn’t end Maccabi’s hegemony because that was never our real objective, at least not that of our true supporters. We were never part of the bloody Tel Aviv rivalry between Maccabi’s Yad Eliahu and Hapoel TA’s Ussishkin.

Hapoel Jerusalem is “the alternative,” as Israeli basketball aficionados, tired of Maccabi’s never-ending reign, have long called it – but not to the team on the coast, rather to a much closer-by neighbor. We never met each other on the court, but for the last two decades two teams have been fighting for the hearts and minds of young Jerusalemites. The community which grew up around our basketball club hates the color yellow, but it wasn’t Maccabi’s we had in our sights.

True, we enjoyed the chants against its all-powerful chairman Shimon Mizrahi, though in truth we were only imitating the Hapoel Tel Aviv fans in taunting him. And yes, we had our conspiracy theories over the infamous “pizza dinner” between Maccabi’s manager Mony Fanan and our Serbian star Radisav Curcic on the eve of the 1999 finals (when his performance suddenly took a dive), and referee Sami Bachar’s dreadful penalty calls in the last minutes of the 2007 final when we got so close to finally beating the curse and Maccabi as well. This made us realize we were actually threatening the Tel Avivians, but the real struggle was never against them.

Hapoel Jerusalem Basketball Club (HJBC) is the alternative to Jerusalem’s football team, and all my friends who still support Hapoel Jerusalem in football will have to forgive me but their good old socialist and secular alternative lost out to the violent and racist monster of Beitar Jerusalem back in the 1970s when Menachem Begin finally won an election. Labor Mayor Teddy Kollek’s defeat at the hands of Ehud Olmert in 1993 confirmed their demise as a viable option.

Symbol of hope

Maybe one day, the small valiant, supporter-owned Hapoel Katamon will bring back the old rivalry to Teddy Stadium, but for over a quarter of a century, the only sane sporting alternative in Israel’s capital has been HJBC. Our first breakthrough into the city’s consensus came in the 1990-91 season, when Beitar dropped to the second league and disappointed supporters with menorah pendants, and for their first time, red shirts arrived on the benches of our old Malha stadium.

Most of them left the next season but something began to change then in the atmosphere. We were suddenly a team representing an entire city, a choice not only for secular left-wingers, but also for communities who were tired of supporting sports clubs based only on narrow tribalism.

When in the mid-'90s, the “little prince” Adi Gordon gave out thousands of T-shirts to kids with the slogan “There is love inside us and it will win,” he may have thought of winning against Maccabi, but many of us wanted our love to be an antidote against Beitar. And at our best, we have always been the opposite to the fear and loathing of the Beitaris, which too often reflects the grim reality of Jerusalem.

Hapoel symbolized the hope for a better Jerusalem, and when weird and megalomaniac tycoons like Arkady Gaydamak and Guma Aguiar tried to control both the teams with their money, many of us felt it was the team’s darkest hour and we were in danger of losing our soul, no matter how well we were doing on the court.

The new investors group headed by Ori Allon (son of Haaretz’s veteran parliamentary correspondent Gideon), rekindled our hope in a team that can succeed professionally while remaining faithful to a different Jerusalem. We’ll never be Maccabi. We have no aspirations to become “the nation’s team.” If one day Hapoel replace them as the aggressive domineering presence in Israeli sports, it will be disastrous for Israeli basketball and the end of our unique identity.

Our true objective is to become the sports club that personifies our city. We’re not there yet and that’s the real asterisk next to this championship.

Beitar is still more entrenched in everyday life in Jerusalem, with a wider community of fans and toxic climate polluting the oxygen our city is starved of. Beitar is still Jerusalem, but Hapoel’s first championship is a crucial step toward saving our city from the hate-mongers.