By Ofer Prossner and Ze'ev Avrahami
How does one choose a team to root for? For some it is proximity, for some it is heritage from their parents or grandparents, and sometimes it just clicks -- uniform colors, a special player, the first time you watch sports and get drawn into it. Sometimes you end up a Cubs fan.
Like most everything else in Israel, fandom has to do with politics. When I grew up I had no choice. My father came to Israel from Iran, and like most other people who came to Israel from their respective Arab and Muslim countries, he immediately associated himself with the right wing Likud party.
It was an emotional choice. The Likud attracted all of those who felt like second-class citizens in their own country. If nothing else, the Likud was the opposition to the ruling Labor party that was supported by the founders of Israel, those who came to the new country from Europe.
And if you supported the Likud party, it was obvious that your team would be Beitar Jerusalem. The team of the people allowed them to identify, to express proudly their heritage, to understand its struggle to find its place and support the team as it was trying to topple the hated team of Hapoel Tel Aviv, which was supported by the Labor party.
And for many of these fans, Beitar and Likud were an outlet for their fears and hatred toward Arabs.
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JERUSALEM -- One Sunday in late February, a short time after his team surrendered its third goal on its way to another loss, Eli Cohen, the coach of Beitar Jerusalem, called Zaur Sadayev to stop stretching and get ready to enter the game.
The 23-year-old Chechen striker stood outside the pitch, lifted his hands in the air and lifted his heels behind his back, getting ready for his first appearance in the yellow and black team colors of Beitar.
When Sadayev entered the game, 10,000 fans stood on their feet and clapped their hands in unison. None of the fans cheering for him was a fan of Beitar. They were fans of the opposing team from Haifa. Beitar's fans kept silent. Some of them cursed, others turned their backs. Sadayev kept his poker face. Nothing, even growing up and playing in war-riddled Chechnya, could have prepared him for what had happened in the weeks preceding this game.
Exactly a month earlier, Beitar was preparing for a home game against Bnei Yehuda. The team was in the middle of an amazing eight-game stretch in which it didn't suffer a loss, a period highlighted by a 2-0 defeat of its archenemy, Hapoel Tel Aviv. The morning of the game, Israeli websites broke a story about the plan of Arkadi Gaydamak, Beitar's majority owner, to sign two Muslim players: Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev.
A few hours later, during the game, Beitar fans raised a huge sign with the words "Beitar is pure forever" -- an ugly declaration everywhere, but especially taken in the Israeli-Jewish context. Some of the fans declared their decision to renounce the team, others decided to stop cheering for it, and some others decided to forcefully interfere with the team. Other fans, those who deserted the team due to the racism associated with it, came back to support it.
Itzik Kornfein, the chairman and former goalkeeper, forced his players -- sometimes by threatening a fine -- to condemn their own racist fans who were known for years for their devotion to the team but also for their aggressive and violent conduct.
Thanks to two anonymous Muslim players, Beitar stood in a middle of a storm.
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Beitar Jerusalem is one of Israel's four biggest football clubs. It has won six championships and seven State Cups, but it has gained its status mainly because of its strong fan base. (According to a 2012 poll, 19 percent of football fans in Israel identify themselves as Beitar fans.)
But aside from its quantity, the fan base distinguished itself with its character. Since the 1950s, opposing fans visiting Beitar's stadium did so at their own peril. Through the years, Beitar fans were involved in violent incidents, including uprooting stadium seats after a loss, burning bleachers and beating opposing fans.
"Beitar had always drawn the lower socio-economic layers of the Israeli society. There was something avant-garde and subversive in supporting the team," said Itzek Alfasi, a sociology PhD and a supporter of Beitar for the past 27 years. "But it is important to remember that the violence in Beitar was never institutionalized. It was always an eruptive violence."
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Beitar won its first Cup in 1976 (coincidentally, on the verge of the Likud winning the national election for the first time). Its first championship was achieved in 1987 (the year of the first Palestinian uprising), and it reached its peak between 1992 and 1998, as Israel signed its historic peace agreement with Palestine, and as the country was awash with deadly terror attacks.
It was also known as a familial club, with limited ownership, diehard fans and eternal financial debts.
By 2000, private ownership had come to Beitar. A few businessmen bought the team, invested money in it, enjoyed the publicity the club gave to them personally and to their businesses, and then left.
"It's an important moment in the history of Beitar," Alfasi said. "When Beitar moved to private ownership, it lost its appeal as underground movement; it became part of the institution, a poster boy where politicians can have their Kodak moment to show how they are connected to the people. Beitar used to have a clear identity, and when a body loses its identity, there are many hitchhikers that would like to jump on its wagon. The movement into private ownership came at the same time as the ultrafans started to show up for Beitar games, and these fans no longer had their borders; they didn't know what is the difference between cheering for the team, waiving the Israeli flag or chanting racial songs."
The last businessman to invest in the team was Gaydamak, a dubious Russian oligarch who was prosecuted in France for arm deals he made with African countries. Gaydamak bought the team in 2005, and during his tenure the team has won two league championships and two Cups.
In Israeli football terms, Gaydamak invested unprecedented amounts of money in the team. In 2008, surfing the waves of love he got from the team's fans, he made himself a candidate in the Jerusalem mayoral race, but got only 3.6 percent of the vote. (Later, Gaydamak confessed that he bought the team to help him get elected, and some say now that the signing of the two Muslim players is his revenge against the fans who betrayed him.). A short time after the election, Gaydamak stopped investing money in the team, and since then the club has been mired in severe financial problems.
And then there's a little "Jeopardy" angle for the team: Name the only team in the Israeli Premier League that never had an Arab player on its roster.
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Until 15 years ago an Arab player on a roster of an Israeli team was not an issue. There were other teams with racist fan bases that didn't sign Arab players, but eventually every team signed an Arab player -- some of whom blossomed and were hugged by the supporters of their respective teams.
"Beitar never had a declared racist policy. No team official ever said that they don't sign an Arab player as a principal," Alfasi said. "The only reason that an Arab player was never signed was the fear of the fans' reaction."
When Gaydamak bought Beitar in 2005, he also decided to financially support the football team of Bnei Sakhnin, the only Arab team in Israel's premier league. He also announced then that he wanted to sign an Arab player for Beitar.
But this signing never materialized. "We checked the possibility of signing an Arab player twice," said Kornfein, the team chairman for the past four years. "Once the player refused to sign with us, and in the other case we couldn't reach a financial agreement with the player's team."
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But even before Kornfein's term, a new power broke into the team scene. In 2000, a fan base that called itself "The Lion's Den" organized itself and declared that one of its most important principals was to not allow the team to sign an Arab player. The group disintegrated after two years, but out of its ruins emerged a new group that called itself "La Famiglia."
For many Beitar fans, signing an Arab player is an explosive issue. For some, it is a political issue. Some fans had lost loved ones and close friends in the chain of terror attacks in the streets of Jerusalem. But only La Famiglia made this option taboo.
"I don't think that it is correct to make it a political issue, or to discuss whether it stains the legacy of Ze'ev Jabotinsky [founder of the Likud party and the football club that opposed racism]," said Roni Reznik, a 60-year-old member of La Famiglia and supporter of the team since 1965. "Our hatred is based on tradition. Ninety-nine percent of the fans were born into two wars with Arabs, and one fan once admitted to me that he started to hate Muslims from the day he was born. We just don't want to see Muslims wearing our uniforms, and opening a window is a dangerous act because then every wind can get in. Now they sign a Muslim and next it will be an Arab player."
Alfasi doesn't agree with this point of view. "One shouldn't disconnect the team from its political and nationalistic associations," he said. "Beitar lost its way under the private ownership, it lost its familiarity, and this familiarity used to guard the team from extreme phenomenon."
Personally, Alfasi concludes, he felt ashamed as a human being, as a Jew and as an Israeli by the racist welcome for the players. "When I heard the protest against them, it felt like my blood was frozen."
The surprising signing of the two Muslim players came on these grounds.
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A week after the news broke about the signing of the two Muslim players, La Famiglia went on its last battle to keep the team in the spirit it wants. During the next game, 1,500 of its members continuously cursed Kornfein and members of the team. The police, which until then had neglected dealing with these fans, took videos of the fans and explored prosecuting them.
But La Famiglia partially justified its name by showing complete ignorance to the police actions. Before the home game against Bnei Sakhnin, as the police assigned a record number of uniformed and undercover cops to secure the game between Beitar and the Arab team, La Famiglia struck first.
Early on Friday morning, two days before the match, two members of La Famiglia set fire to the team's clubhouse in its training facility. The blaze destroyed the Cups, championship banners and the entire documented history of the team.
The authorities realized that a line had been crossed. Against Sakhnin, security was given lists of people allowed to enter the stadium. Those wearing La Famiglia T-shirts were turned back at the entrances, and marked fans were ordered to appear at the local police station during the game. On Feb. 12, two days after the game against Sakhnin, La Famiglia announced its breakup. Still, most of those who followed Beitar to its away games were from the fan base that had resisted the signing of the Muslim players.
These events didn't help Beitar on the field. After a tie against Sakhnin, Beitar surrendered seven goals and lost two games in a row. Then it hosted Maccabi Netanya in the penultimate game of the regular season, a crucial game that would have decided Beitar's playoff fate. Only 5,000 fans showed for the match, the smallest number for a Beitar home game this season.
"When I am going to a football match, I don't want to feel like I am a dangerous, wanted man. At my age I don't want to feel like I want to go through six rounds of security checks and being treated like a criminal," says Raznik. "Especially if it is for a game of a team that I love. That's why I stopped showing up for games, and there are many fans like me."
Another reason for Raznik's disappearance from the stadium was the decision of the Israeli Football Federation to punish the team and close the eastern gallery of the stadium, a La Famiglia stronghold.
Because of the closure of the eastern gallery, many of its denizens moved to the northern gallery of the stadium. The upper part of the gallery supported the team and cheered for it, while the lower part booed and cursed the players, the chairman and the owner. Many of the jeers were directed toward Sadayev, who started the game but didn't influence it in a scoreless first half.
"It was insane," says Alfasi, who sat in the western gallery. "It is normal that you root for your team and the other side will root against it, or will support his own team, but what we had were supporters of the same team rooting for and against it at the same time."
Three minutes into the second half, Sadayev took a pass near the penalty box and shot the ball behind the goalkeeper for his first goal, right in front of the fans who didn't stop cursing him.
It was a Hollywood moment. "One of the most emotional moments in my life," said Alfasi, but the moment was disrupted by about 300 fans from the upper northern gallery who decided to celebrate their team goal by standing up and leaving the stadium. But the other 4,500 fans stood, clapped their hands and cheered loudly. Later, when Sadayev was replaced, the entire stadium gave the departed player a long standing ovation.
It was indeed another Hollywood moment. Only Jerusalem is not Universal Studios and the football gods are not named Spielberg. Netanya equaled the score later, and in the next game Beiter was defeated 5-0 and relegated to the lower-seeded playoff. After the signing of the two Muslim players, Beitar didn't win a game, it collected two out of 21 potential points, it went from fourth to seventh place in the table and it lost about 2 million shekels in income.
Even worse: Despite the fact that La Famiglia ceased its actions and some of its members were arrested, and despite the fact that the two men who set the clubhouse on fire were arrested, it appears that the racist fan base won. Not only is Beitar a club in deep trauma, but it seems no one, considering the effects, will even think remotely about signing Arab or Muslim players for the team in the future.
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The conflict, all sides agree, isn't just about Beitar's image, but about the essence of its existence.
"If Beitar will be considered a racist club, it will lose its right to exist," Kornfein said. "Beitar is a brand with huge exposure, with each of its games broadcast on TV, many fans and unparalleled media coverage, but we can't find any sponsors for the team. Many businesses say to me that they don't want to be associated with a racist brand."
Kornfein says that the team expected some tough reactions, but that they were not ready for the magnitude of the response. "We certainly didn't forecast the effect it will have on the players, but if I had to turn back the clock, we would do the same thing," he said. "What really scares me in this issue is the fact that people try to limit this behavior to Beitar. When people behave like our fans did after the signing, it shows a bigger problem, a societal problem."
"Racism is a sickness," says Erel Segal, a columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv and an avid fan of Beitar. "If you want to deal with this sickness, you can't just take care of the sick people, you have to check what makes them sick. Specifically, these fans are the most devoted fans of Beitar, by far. They are following it everywhere, but if Beitar wishes to continue its existence it must get rid of them. It has no other choice."
No one is willing to bet on the future of Beitar, but it is clear that after years of passive actions against violence and racism by the team supporters, the signing of the two Chechen players started a snowball that might change the club forever.
"Beitar had reached a classic T junction," says Alfasi. "The team will either start a new road or turn into something better, or it will cease to exist. Gaydamak did the team a great service: He put their fear in front of the fans and forced them to face it.
"If La Famiglia will win this battle, if it will force the people who were involved with the signing to leave, then a new owner will come, and he will be forced to say that he doesn't want to go to war with the fans, so he won't sign an Arab player. Then it is obvious that this branding of Beitar as a racist club is systematic. And in 2013 a racist club can't exist. Not financially, not ethically, not at all."
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When does a fan desert his team? I remember in 1999, when Beitar was contending for the championship and I was following it to every game. Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recently reelected to his third term as prime minister, was then serving his first term. I remember him going on the field and playing with the ball to the cheering of thousands of fans, and, just before the teams took the field field, thousands in the eastern gallery chanted rhythmically: "Death to the Arabs, death to the Arabs."
And I remember how sad I got after Beitar scored a goal, or won a game. And I knew that my romance was over, and I must brush and erase my first childhood memories of holding my father's hand on the way to Beitar game. Maybe Reznik is right: It is better not to open any window because then you realize that your worst enemy, self destruction, is always there.
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Ofer Prossnet is a writer from Israel. He has written about sports for six years and currently writes for the Israeli sports website Debuzzer.
Ze'ev Avrahami was born in Israel and resides in Berlin. After graduating from the Columbia School of Journalism, he contributed to the daily Haaretz as correspondent from New York and Berlin. He currently writes about sports and more for Debuzzer.