Why Arab-hating Soccer Fans Could Herald a Better Israel

The racism spreading in Beitar, rather than being a Darwinian or religious world view, is the fruit of a desire for oppositional self-definition.

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Any attempt to understand whether we are sliding into fascist-like behavior must take into account the story of Beitar Jerusalem, which has changed from a likeable “Second Israel” soccer team, identified with the Likud, to a club in which a significant percentage of the fans engage in racist activities and whose management refrains from hiring Arabs.

Last week, in response to a campaign by the Haaretz Sports staff highlighting the total lack of Arab players on the team, club spokesman Oshri Dudai made a surprising declaration that deserves to be widely publicized.

There is no racism in Beitar, he maintained, because it has “an Arab owner, of Yemenite origin” and many players who are “Jewish Arabs.”

The first thing that is interesting in the adoption of the definition “Jewish Arabs” for the Mizrahi (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin) players in the team – without anyone in the club getting angry – is the speed in which concepts that were considered radical become natural here. This attests to a lively process of formulating and recognizing new or renewed identities.

It’s no wonder that bizarre figures like “The Shadow” and his ilk momentarily become cultural heroes, while, on the other hand, those who represent secular and liberal Israeliness are horrified. Both sides are having extreme reactions to a change whose nature is not yet clear and whose outcome is not necessarily bad.

Although Dudai emptied the concept “Jewish Arab” of its cultural content and described Arabness as “a geographical origin,” his boasting about the “Arabness” of Beitar is a declaration that expresses awareness. The question is: If Beitar defines itself as an Arab team, how can we explain its hostility toward Muslim Arabs?

Behind what is seen as racism are intra-Jewish connections. After all, the willingness to be called a “Jewish Arab” came in reaction to the accusations of racism by Haaretz, which the spokesman called “a corpse that is being kept artificially alive by some Ashkenazi elite” (Jews of European origin).

In other words, the rejection of the “Ashkenazi elite” is key to understanding the expressions of hatred for the Arabs, as well as the identification with them: We are racists in order to demonstrate disdain for the values that are important to the elite – and, on the other hand – we are willing to define ourselves as Arabs, if that’s what it takes to show disdain for the attempts of the elite to educate us.

It follows that the racism spreading in Beitar, rather than being a Darwinian or religious world view, is the fruit of a desire for oppositional self-definition.

Processes relating to neo-liberalism in Israel have also influenced the Beitar identity. It’s no fluke that the point at which support for the right became racism coincided with the era that began when Arcadi Gaydamak purchased the club from its mysterious owner. The oligarch invested millions in the club, while stripping it of its communal identity and basing it on the money he brought, and later withheld. Finding solidarity in the principle of racism is also part of the attempt to preserve the old uniqueness and solidarity.

The racism in Beitar and the racism revealed in the support for the soldier who shot the wounded terrorist in Hebron aren’t mutually exclusive. They are both related to the changing relationships between old and new centers of power in the society.

The paradox is that it was actually the eroded power of the old, liberal Ashkenazi elite that gave the Beitar spokesperson the courage and the freedom to identity the club as a group of “Jewish Arabs” – which is precisely how the elite regards them – but on his own terms and in his own time.

The implication is that some of the changes that currently seem to threaten the sanity of Israeli society, could well turn out to have potential for positive renewal.