Until an Arab Plays for Beitar Jerusalem...

In its near-80-year history, the capital’s largest club has yet to field an Arab player. The time has come to end this exclusion, but also to understand the reasons behind it. A Haaretz Sports special project.

Nir Keidar

Few know it but Beitar Jerusalem once had an Arab player on its books, someone who trained with the soccer club for a year or two back in the 1970s. Those who saw him remember a quite talented player, even though he never featured in a single first-team game. The player is now a well-known figure in cultural circles. When I asked him about his time at Beitar, he said, “I’m asking you not to mention it. I live somewhere where they could cause a great deal of trouble if they knew I was once at Beitar Jerusalem. It really puts me at risk.”

Since then, not a single Arab player has set foot on the field for Beitar Jerusalem. This, in a city where 40 percent of the population is Arab (some 300,000 people). Their property taxes were spent on building and renovating Teddy Stadium, to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels. Their mayor, Nir Barkat, has often been kept busy on Beitar matters – attempts to save it by finding new owners and investors, as well as supporting it in many other ways.

Despite all this, in practice the city’s Arab population keeps well away from the capital’s largest soccer club. The Employment (Equal Opportunities) Law states, “An employer will not discriminate between employees or jobseekers because of their race, religion, nationality ... A conviction for this offense [bears a sentence] of imprisonment or a criminal fine.”

Beitar Jerusalem was founded in 1936, 79 years ago, yet to this day none of its management has ever been put on trial for this.

Last week, in response to a request from Haaretz, the Economy Ministry’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began an inquiry into the matter, and whether to put Beitar on trial. Haaretz will be following this story closely, and updating readers if anything changes. Haaretz revealed Thursday that the club has now been summoned to the commission to explain why it doesn’t sign Arab players.

But what about the club itself? What do the people there think? Do they think it’s right that not a single Arab has ever played for the team? What do the fans think? And what does city hall think about it all? Is the Israel Football Association, the organization that governs Israeli soccer, willing to continue to allow Beitar to, de facto, exclude the Arab public?

And what about European governing soccer body UEFA, which insists at any given opportunity that it is “fighting racism.” How can it allow Beitar to continue to play in the Israeli league, and even participate in European competitions? And what about the Sports Betting Board, which provides the IFA – and, through it, Beitar – with money: Doesn’t the exclusion of such a significant minority discount it from receiving public funds?

And what about the Arab public in Israel – will it decide to fight the phenomenon? Are there Arabs who are even willing to play for Beitar, or want to? And where’s the press in all this? Will they continue to cover Beitar as if it’s just a normal team, like all the rest?

We will try to examine all these issues in a series of articles. For now, we will leave you with a hypothetical situation to think about: Imagine a European team – an English, Italian or French soccer club, say, that for all its years of existence never hired a black player, or a Jewish or Asian one. Imagine that the representative of the owners of that same team said, “We will not sign a black/Jewish/Asian player, in order to avoid antagonizing the fans.” Or if the team coach says, “This is not the time to add a black/Jewish/Asian player, since it would create tension and cause much greater damage. Even if the player was right for me professionally, I wouldn’t sign him.”

If such things had been said, would everything continue quietly as before? Would the football association of that country allow the team to continue operating the way it did – excluding an entire part of the population? Would Israel not have cried out if the European club avoided hiring Jews publicly?

It’s quite reasonable to assume that the answers to these questions are no. Such a situation – consistent exclusion and discrimination over decades – no longer exists in 2015. Except it still exists here in Israel, and life goes on. And Israeli soccer and sports continue as if nothing had changed.

So we’ve decided to try to put an end to this, but without ignoring the factors that enable this situation to continue – including those in the Arab community, too. That’s why we will try to examine the background and various aspects of the Beitar Jerusalem affair, and its continued stance of not signing Arab players.