Of all the fatuous comments made by politicians, the one that should generate the most eye-rolling is the demand not to mix sports and politics. Sports are politics. Much like Donald Trump and a bottle of self-tanner, the two have always been inseparable.
When a politician implores us to keep politics out of sports, what they invariably mean is: Keep this person’s politics (i.e., Black Lives Matter-supporting quarterback Colin Kaepernick) out of sports, but not those of the person I endorse (i.e., religious assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy).
In a country such as Israel, the sports/politics dynamic is even more intense for the simple reason that everything here is political in nature: sports, food, the arts – even nature itself . Welcome to the Holy-moly Land, where the talent to bewilder is just part of the DNA, and the only surprise is how politicians manage to outwit each other for dim-wittedness.
I discovered firsthand how politics is baked into Israeli sports back in April 1999, while attending a soccer match between Hapoel Petah Tikva and Hapoel Haifa. This was a big game, believe it or not, as Hapoel Haifa was pursuing its first-ever championship and was only eight games away from making history.
I was sitting in the busy away section with a long-suffering Hapoel Haifa supporter – there is no other kind of sport fan, of course, no matter who they follow – and the action on the field was tense as the northern side struggled to convert its supremacy into goals.
Midway through the second half, a Petah Tikva defender committed a foul so heinous, a UN committee should have been established to investigate it. I instinctively jumped to my feet and shouted something in English along the lines of “Animal! Send him off” – which generated an audible gasp from the Hapoel Haifa fans around me.
It transpired, I later found out, that the defender I was shouting at was an Arab player – something all of the left-leaning Hapoel Haifa fans around me were fully aware of, and which made them wary of singling him out for abuse. (You can tell this story is nearly 25 years old by the fact that there were still Israeli left-wingers at the time.)
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I had dived two-footed, much like the defender himself, into an intensely political moment. It was one that made me watch Israeli soccer in a different light afterward – but the best way to watch most Israeli soccer is through your fingers.
A second incident was much more recent. Last year, one of my kids went to see Hapoel Tel Aviv take on Maccabi Haifa. She is not a huge soccer fan, it must be said, so the actions of the crowd were of far greater interest than what was happening on the field. You know, the big questions like: How many sunflower seeds can one Israeli actually eat in 90 minutes? And, when will the shells they’re spitting out actually start to obscure their view of the action?
She was particularly intrigued by the Hapoel fans’ derogatory chants – not about Maccabi Haifa, but about a team that wasn’t playing at Bloomfield that evening: Hapoel Beit She’an.
Why was a tiny northern team that actually folded in 2006 still be the subject of Tel Avivian ire? The answer to that and much more is revealed in Shaul Adar’s recently published book “On the Border: The Rise and Decline of the Most Political Club in the World,” about the notorious Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.
Beitar played Hapoel Beit She’an in a crucial league game in May 1998, which became known as the “shoelaces game” thanks to the way Beit She’an gifted their opponents the win – and therefore the championship, over Hapoel Tel Aviv. Think Shoeless Joe Jackson and the notorious Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, but replace Shoeless with “Shoelaces” Eitan Tayeb, who both missed a penalty for Beit She’an and spent a surprising amount of time tying his shoelaces in the vital last few minutes as Beitar sought – and found – a championship-clinching winning goal.
Why would humble Beit She’an care who wins the championship? Simple: politics, and ethnic solidarity. Beitar is affiliated with the Israeli right-wing and has a more conservative, religious fanbase, whereas Hapoel Tel Aviv is seen as the team symbolizing Israel’s founding secular elite. The distinctions also run along ethnic lines, with Beitar being more popular among Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to the country from Arab countries, and Hapoel the team of Ashkenazi Jews from the kibbutzim and Tel Aviv’s wealthy neighborhoods. Hapoel fans firmly believe that Beit She’an, a peripheral town with a largely working-class Mizrahi population, handed the game to Beitar just in order to stick it to their political and socioeconomic rivals.
Beitar Jerusalem has become one of the most notorious clubs in the world over the past decade. It was catapulted to infamy due to the shameless racism exhibited by a virulent group of its supporters, known as La Familia, who reside in the Teddy Stadium’s East Stand (Hamizrahi, appropriately enough, given that most of its occupants are Mizrahi Jews with roots in Arab countries) and are proud of the fact that Beitar has never fielded an Arab player.
As a soccer fan I really enjoyed “On the Border,” but would have to quibble with the book’s title – in which “political” really serves as a euphemism for “racist.” The world is full of soccer teams that are the playthings of dictators and authoritarian regimes. What’s unique about Beitar is the way the racism is celebrated by La Familia, with its chant of “Here they come, the [most] racist team of the country,” as a badge of honor, something to sit alongside the menorah on the official club emblem.
That racism made international news in January 2013, when Beitar signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, leading to La Familia unfurling its infamous “Beitar Forever Pure” banner during a home game against Bnei Yehuda.
Those incredible four months, when the two Chechens innocently walked into a bear pit, are stunningly captured in Maya Zinshtein’s 2016 documentary “Forever Pure.” And while “On the Border” doesn’t have the amazing access the Russian-speaking Israeli documentarian had for her award-winning film, Adar compensates for that with a deep knowledge of Israeli soccer and years spent covering the soccer scene in Jerusalem itself.
Yes, this is a book whose principal audience will be curious soccer fans. But it’s also an accessible primer on the history of Jerusalem and how the Abrahamic religions shaped it. Even more crucially, it examines the fault lines upon which the city is built: Jew vs. Arab; secular vs. Orthodox; Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi; right vs. left – and, of course, the big one: Hapoel vs. Beitar.
“On the Border” also serves as a great introduction to the history of Israeli soccer and is full of fascinating details: from its formative years in Mandatory Palestine when the British Police won the first championship in 1932; what Maccabi Tel Aviv’s blue and yellow kit represents; why the 1952-53 season was canceled; how Israel inadvertently gave the world penalty shootouts to settle tied cup games; how Arab players have been representing Israel since 1976, and the rise of Arab teams such as Hapoel Tayibe and Bnei Sakhnin; a brief history of great Jewish soccer teams such as Hakoah Vienna; and, at the entry level, why so many Israeli teams are called Hapoel, Maccabi and Beitar rather than United, City or, um, Wednesday.
There are so many great stories here and so many great characters. I was beguiled by stories about old players such as Nathan Panz, whose statue can be found in Jaffa, and appalled by the ugly nature of the beautiful game here at times. Because while politics is often the subtext in sports, there are times when it is also shockingly overt – such as when Likud politicians rile up the base at Beitar games. The rise of Likud is a fascinating subplot in the book, particularly as it has become increasingly lawless in recent times and mirrored the fortunes of Beitar itself.
As Adar explains, “To understand Beitar you need to first understand and feel Jerusalem. Then you’ll understand how a club that used to have an alliance with Arab clubs in the 1940s has become ‘the most racist in the country.’” If that was his goal, well, he shoots and he scores.
Adar grew up in the Negev city of Be’er Sheva, which has been the sight of a soccer miracle in the past decade with the success of Hapoel – and seems an obvious source for a sequel, if he’s interested. But lovers of Jerusalem, the ultimate holy-moly city, will recognize his descriptions of a city he spent a year working in as a journalist before fleeing to Tel Aviv, unable to handle what he calls the “holiness” of the place “and what it does to the Yerushalmim [locals], to the Palestinians, to the air.”
This is no love letter to the City of Gold, but a lament for its fading fortunes since he lived there in the 1990s. “I feel pain when I see what has happened to the city,” he writes. “How ugly, megalomaniac, racist and vicious it has turned, and how irresponsible its leaders are.”
So, come for the vivid descriptions of Jerusalem and the painful retelling of how Beitar slowly devolved into the most racist soccer club in the world. Then stay for all the biblical quotes and tales – because I feel pretty safe in stating that this is the only sport book you will ever read that features a soccer allegory involving Pharaoh’s dream about seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows.
“On the Border: The Rise and Decline of the Most Political Club in the World,” by Shaul Adar, is out now, published by Pitch Publishing.