You have to rub your eyes in order to believe that the deal between the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club and Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates is real and not some very good joke. The club – which in recent years has become synonymous with hatred of Arabs, in which no Arab player has every played and which has vowed to remain “forever pure” of Arabs – has sold a 50 percent stake to a Muslim, a relative of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.
This development is good news for all peace seekers in Israel, the UAE and the Middle East, and its impact goes beyond the realm of sports and the financial rewards for Beitar Jerusalem. Even those who aren’t soccer fans cannot help but be impressed by the sheikh who said after signing the deal: “I am excited to be a partner in this amazing club I’ve heard about, and this city – the Israeli capital and one of the world’s holy cities.”
There is nothing to be taken for granted about this deal, which wouldn’t have been signed if not for the courage, vision and steadfastness of Beitar Jerusalem’s owner, Moshe Hogeg who, from the moment he bought the club, set himself the goal of routing the racism that is the hallmark of some of its fans. Hogeg, not fearing the response of Beitar’s far-right militant fan club, La Familia, said: “In my eyes and those of the great rabbis, racism is a sin before God. Racism isn’t done – certainly not in the holy city and certainly not on my watch.”
When members of La Familia held a protest after first hearing that the team might be bought by someone from the UAE, Hogeg responded unequivocally: “Racism is a result of ignorance/ a limp brain. With the help of God we can pray for the recovery of those who suffer from this difficult illness and continue on the road to peace,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
These are words that are rarely heard in the Israel of 2020. The person who utters them deserves to be saluted, especially when he says them to La Familia members and backs them up with actions.
True, the deal raises fears among some of a potential loss of identity on the part of the team. Business people andeald relatives of the Abu Dhabi royal family have been involved for years in international soccer and have bought teams in various countries, Manchester City being the most prominent one.
While it’s important to hold a discussion about the proper balance between the economic interests of a soccer team and its identity, it is hard to defend any desire to adhere to the values of racism and nationalism in the spirit of La Familia.
- Arab owner, but no Arab players: Abu Dhabi sheikh buys stake in Jerusalem soccer club
- Buying Jerusalem soccer club, Emiratis have just invested in Israel's ruling class
- 'Anti-Arab group La Familia is only as violent as Israel's leaders allow it to be'
It is likely that the fact that Beitar Jerusalem will become less “pure” will also make it healthier, stronger and more legitimate.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.