Two weeks after banners were raised in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium reading “Beitar pure forever” and “70 years of principles” following the decision to sign two Muslim players from Chechnya the team’s offices in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood were set ablaze Friday. The suspected arson was part of the increasing violence and racism that some fans have directed against the heads of the club and its players in recent days.
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During practice, threats and curses were hurled at the Chechen players and, afterward, at chairman Yitzhak Kornfein and head coach Eli Cohen. Cohen had to be shadowed by bodyguards on the pitch. After the arson attack he said, “I really am afraid for my life.”
The fact that, for 70 years, Beitar Jerusalem has refused to play an Arab player is a black stain on the club, Israeli soccer and, especially, the state, which has allowed outright violent racism to exist within an official framework. But the decision to sign two Chechen players is, in fact, a great opportunity to eradicate this ugly situation.
What has allowed racism to flourish in Beitar Jerusalem is the national attitude toward sports in this country, as if it were something that exists alongside the state. If such violence and racism were seen elsewhere, the full force of law enforcement and the judicial system would be brought harshly to bear against the offenders. And yet it has been allowed to thrive in stadium bleachers, with no appropriate action taken. In this sense, Beitar Jerusalem has been abandoned by the state.
Now, after the violence has grown and media worldwide are presenting Beitar as a symbol of Israeli racism, government officials have begun to decry the phenomenon. But there is no real value to general statements (Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu: “We must not accept such racist conduct.”). They must be backed up by action.
Law enforcement and the courts must convey the clear message that sports stadia and pitches are not outside the law. Such a message will be conveyed only if significant indictments are filed and harsher penalties imposed as a rule. At the same time, Beitar Jerusalem must act to bring Arab players into the team.