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Saturday, January 2, 2010

The not-so-beautiful game of football in Israel

Beitar Jerusalem fans at the final of the Israeli State Cup against Maccabi Haifa in May 2009. Beitar Jerusalem won 2-1

There are only a few minutes until kick-off, and the tension is starting to show in the face of Uri Ohayon. The 40-year-old is sitting high up in the east stand of Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, surrounded by a sea of young men dressed in the yellow and black of their team. He puffs on one of his strong, stubby Israeli cigarettes, puts it out, devours a handful of sunflower seeds and lights another cigarette. On the pitch below, the players are finishing their warm-up.

A Beitar Jerusalem Hebrew sign with the word “Milhama” (War) is displayed at their match against Hapoel Tel Aviv
Suddenly, in the block to his left, where many of Beitar Jerusalem’s most die-hard fans stand, hundreds of fists are raised in the air. They hover for a few seconds, and are then thrust forward with a loud cry. “Hamesh!” The chant – Five! – is picked up by one notorious fan club, who congregate with other supporters on the north terrace. “Four!” they scream back. More and more fans rise from their seats to join in the countdown, their chants swelling with every digit until the whole stadium, fingers pointing at the crowd of away supporters, scream together: “Milhama! Milhama! Milhama!” War! War! War!

The team and its supporters revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli football. The fans have a reputation for intimidating opposing sides with aggressive – and often racist – abuse, and tonight they fully intend to live up to that ­reputation: Beitar is about to face Hapoel Tel Aviv, its most hated rival, and a team that stands for everything that Ohayon and his fellow fans detest. Hapoel’s home stadium in Tel Aviv, Israel’s second big city, is less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, yet in social, ethnic, political and religious terms it might as well be on a different planet. “This,” says Ohayon earnestly, as he chews another sunflower seed, “goes far beyond football.”

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans
Tel Aviv is Israel’s commercial centre, an affluent, secular and leftist coastal town – the place Israelis go to for a good time. Jerusalem is the country’s political and spiritual centre, but it is also where conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is sharpest. A city of ancient beauty, Jerusalem is a poorer, more nationalist and less tolerant place than Tel Aviv. What really sets Hapoel and Beitar apart, however, is politics and ethnicity. Beitar is the sporting standard-bearer of the Israeli right; Hapoel is proudly leftwing. The Jerusalem team is supported by Israelis of Mizrahi origin, Jews who arrived in Israel from Middle Eastern and northern African countries. They in turn look at Hapoel as an Ashkenazi team, a club founded and supported by Jews of eastern European extraction.

The gulf between these two groups is just one example of the many divisions that characterise Israeli society. They may be glossed over elsewhere, but most certainly not on the terraces of Israeli football stadiums, where old rivalries – between left and right, Arabs and Jews, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular, insiders and outsiders – are exposed in full, and often brutal, clarity.

. . .

Israeli football clubs retain much of the distinctive political, social and ethical allegiances that marked their foundation. Maccabi Haifa is shown here
Israeli club football itself can be boring: anyone used to the big European leagues will have the impression of a match in slow motion. Attackers carry the ball forward without much interference from opposing defenders. Passing is rarely forced. Aggressive tackling is rare. To outsiders, Israeli society can feel similarly cosy – a tightknit family, ever ready to rally around the flag and make individual sacrifices for the state. For a reminder of the country’s ability to unite across all divisions, look no further than the Israeli public’s overwhelming support for the Gaza war one year ago – and its angry response to the international condemnation that followed.

And yet, in many other ways, Israel never was, and never wanted to be, the monolithic society it often appears. Indeed, most Israelis today are proud of the country’s diversity, a mosaic that makes European countries and some parts of the US seem homogenous. Founded largely by European Jews, the state soon became home to hundreds of thousands of their co-religionists from Iraq, Syria, northern Africa and other Arab countries, arriving after the 1948 war. They were followed by waves of immigration from ancient Jewish communities in Yemen and Ethiopia, as well as arrivals from the US and western Europe. Israeli cities became melanges, where American-style shopping malls, Yemeni jewellery stores and intimate Moroccan couscous joints all seemed strangely indigenous.

Nor did that mix stabilise. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than one million Jews from Russia, Ukraine and central Asia arrived. For a country as small as the Jewish state, it was a breathtaking number – equivalent to 60 million immigrants arriving in the US or 12 million in Britain today. The absorption of the new immigrants worked surprisingly well. The newcomers added Russian-language newspapers and television stations to the mix – as well as shops selling a bewildering array of vodka brands and, much to the chagrin of religious Jews, pork chops.

There are at least two other distinct tribes in modern-day Israel: one is the Palestinian minority, making up more than one in five Israeli citizens. The other is the fast-growing ultra-orthodox community, which tends to live in segregated neighbourhoods or towns. Both groups, to varying degrees, sit on the sidelines of mainstream Israeli society – the Palestinians because they are not Jewish, and the ultra-orthodox because to them much of modern-day Israel is not Jewish enough.

. . .

Behind the raucous egalitarianism of contemporary, diverse Israel lies a complex hierarchy that divides the country’s different groups into insiders and outsiders, advantaged and disadvantaged. When they arrived in Israel, many decades apart, immigrants from Arab countries as well as from the former Soviet Union were often shunted off into peripheral, charmless “development towns”, far from the urban centres of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Today, Mizrahi Israelis make up 40 per cent of the Jewish population of Israel, but they have so far waited in vain for a prime minister to emerge from their midst. They continue to be severely under-represented in academia and the more lucrative niches of the Israeli economy. Citizens of Ethiopian and Yemeni origin have fared even worse.

Ashkenazi Israelis tend to breezily dismiss the social divides that mark the country, but the tensions created by Israel’s diversity are difficult to ignore and often a cause of simmering discontent. Grievances are rarely aired in public. Football is a notable exception.

A Beitar Jerusalem fan
Back in Teddy Stadium, Beitar had a good night. The match finished with a 2-1 victory for Jerusalem, a result that kept the team’s title hopes alive for another week and sent Ohayon back home smiling. The following night, I visited Ohayon at his neat apartment in Jerusalem’s Baka district, where he lives with his wife and three sons. Even inside his home, the hatred for Hapoel Tel Aviv has left its mark. The red of Hapoel, he points out, is banned from the living room. Ohayon’s wife later tells me that when they started going out, he warned her never to wear red clothes or paint her nails red – a dictum which she had adhered to on the night of my visit.

As we settle down, Ohayon explains his passion for Beitar. “My father, God rest him in peace, brought me to my first match. He was a policeman, and was regularly on duty during Beitar’s matches.” Ohayon’s parents came to Israel from Morocco, and moved into a neighbourhood heavily populated by fellow Mizrahi Jews. Everyone supported Beitar, and everyone supported the Herut party, the rightwing nationalist group led by Menachem Begin, the future prime minister. For many inside the Mizrahi community, Begin and Beitar were the two vehicles to get even with the Ashkenazi elite. In Ohayon’s narrative, Begin’s election victory in 1977 and Beitar’s first cup victory in 1976 blend together in a tale of sweet revenge for Israel’s self-proclaimed underdogs.

Like the majority of Beitar fans, Ohayon is an unabashed rightwinger. He believes in Israel’s right not only to the lands that currently constitute the occupied Palestinian territories, but also to the “other side of the river Jordan”, meaning the present-day Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Unsurprisingly, he takes a gloomy view of the prospects for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours, especially the Palestinians. “The solution to this conflict will be through war. There will be a big war, many countries will be involved, and then, maybe, there will be silence.”

. . .

Football clubs everywhere boast a particular identity, an often diffuse mix of real and imagined history. Rival clubs in cities such as London, Munich and Madrid are regularly characterised as rich or poor, working class or elite, left or right. But, in an age of billionaire club owners, skyrocketing ticket prices and an influx of foreign players, many of these distinctions have lost their force.

Not so in Israel. Here, the clubs retain much of the distinctive political, social and ethnic coherence that marked their foundation. Hapoel’s colours, as befits a club formed by the Labour movement, are red, and its most popular image is of Che Guevara; at a match a few weeks after the Beitar game, I meet one of the leaders of the Hapoel fan club, who wears a baseball cap sporting the symbol of the international anti-fascist movement. Later, on the terraces, a supporter rolls up his sleeve to show me his tattoo – the hammer and sickle.

Hapoel Tel Aviv fans
But it goes beyond symbols. I ask one fan, a young software engineer, which party he voted for at the February general elections. Almost apologetically, he says he backed the “right” this time, casting his vote for the Kadima party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Almost anywhere else in Israel, Kadima, a leading advocate for the creation of a Palestinian state, is considered centrist or centre-left. In fact, most Beitar fans would probably consider the party dangerously radical, if not unpatriotic. “I did it to stop Netanyahu [the leader of the rightwing Likud party and current prime minister] from winning,” the fan adds by way of an explanation.

Playing football in Israel was, from the outset, a political activity. When the first Zionist clubs were founded, more than 20 years before the creation of the state of Israel, they were formed as offshoots of the main political movements. To this day, most first-division clubs carry both their founding ideology and their party allegiance in their name: Hapoel teams were part of the Socialist movement, today represented by the Israeli Labour party. Teams named Beitar were part of the rightwing nationalist Herut party, later Likud. And Maccabi clubs were attached to the liberal Zionist movement, which later merged with the Herut.

Iddo Nevo, a political scientist who studies the links between football and society, explains the degree to which Israel’s founders were locked into the political embrace. “People got everything from their political movement: their newspaper, their medical services, their housing and also their football club. If you were part of the Labour movement, your team was Hapoel.” It was the same for players. “If you played for Hapoel Tel Aviv, you could move to Hapoel Haifa or Hapoel Jerusalem – but never to Beitar Jerusalem.”

This strict division held firm until the 1970s, but eventually all the teams cut their direct links with political parties. Hapoel Tel Aviv lasted longest, formally severing its ties to the Histadrut trade union only in the late 1990s. But, as with most other Israeli teams, the club’s social and political identity lives on, and today, if you know an Israeli’s team, you can probably guess his politics, too.

Of course, the differences that mark Israel’s social, ethnic and political tribes only go so far. There is probably more that unites the long-haired Hapoel fan waving his Che Guevara flag and the shaven-headed supporter of Beitar belting out the Israeli national anthem than separates them: a shared religion, a commitment to a Jewish state and service in the Israeli army, among other factors. Yet the very persistence of the identities and loyalties that underpin the rivalry between Hapoel, Beitar and other teams do speak of something important. More than 60 years after the creation of the state of Israel, the Jewish state remains not only a work in progress, but also a work whose final shape is far from determined. Overcoming the splits and competing visions between religious and secular, right and left is one challenge. A much bigger and more serious rift, however, looms elsewhere.

A few months before seeing Beitar’s game against Hapoel Tel Aviv, I had visited Teddy Stadium for a match that epitomised another, uglier divide in Israeli society. The visiting team was Bnei Sakhnin, at the time the only club in the top division from an Israeli-Palestinian town, and one that is seen as the sporting standard-bearer of the country’s Arab minority. Even more than on normal nights, the chants and songs from Beitar’s terraces were full of anti-Arab sentiment. The away fans were screamed down as “terrorists” and taunted with chants of “The Temple Mount is ours” – a reference to the site in Jerusalem’s Old City which is venerated by both Muslims and Jews. Easily the most popular chant, sung to a strikingly melodious tune, went like this: “This is the Land of Israel/This is the Land of the Jews/We hate you, Salim Touama [an Arab-Israeli football player]/We hate all the Arabs.”

Aaron Mordechai, a Beitar fan, is frustrated with the goalless draw, and angry with the referee and the opposing team. “That is the problem with the Arabs,” he says. “Wherever they are, they make trouble.”

. . .

Sakhnin is a town of 20,000 inhabitants in the Galilee region, about two hours’ drive north of Jerusalem. It is bisected by a main road that winds past mosques, the small mayor’s office and a series of squat, flat-roofed buildings typical of Arab towns. The signs pointing to Doha ­Stadium, Bnei’s modest home ground, are impossible to overlook. Israel’s Arab minority, for which the region around Saknhin is the heartland, accounts for more than 20 per cent of the country’s population. Israeli-Palestinians have the right to vote, stand in elections and hold Israeli passports. Yet they see themselves, and are seen by many Israelis, as an alien component in a state that defines itself above all else as ­Jewish. Discrimination abounds, and fears of a backlash against Arabs have escalated since last year’s elections brought in a rightwing coalition government that includes an openly anti-Arab party.

Israeli-Palestinians are torn between a sense of allegiance to the state they live in, and the sense of kinship with the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, and their struggle for an independent Palestinian state. In an Israeli state and society that revels in its Jewish identity and symbols, the Arab minority has few ways of celebrating its own identity. That is one reason why the success of Bnei Sakhnin has captured the imagination of Israeli-Palestinians across the country.

Maccabi Haifa fans at the final of the Israel State Cup
Sakhnin’s moment of glory came on the night of May 18 2004, when the team met Hapoel Haifa in the national cup final in front of 38,000 spectators. No Israeli-Palestinian football fan will ever forget the match, and least of all Gnaim Mazn, at the time the club president and today the mayor of Sakhnin. “It is impossible to describe. When the referee blew the whistle…” Mazn’s voice trails off as he thinks back to Bnei Sakhnin’s 4-1 victory. It was the first time that an Israeli-Palestinian team had won a national football title.

After the match, Gnaim says, the team bus found it impossible to get back to Sakhnin: “The police told us not to drive through the triangle [an area heavily populated by Israeli-Palestinians] because every road was blocked by celebrating fans. We went another way but it too was blocked by fans. Eventually we drove through Haifa. But it, too, was blocked. The fans were waiting for us at 2 o’clock in the morning to celebrate.” Gnaim’s office is cramped, dominated by a large table where visitors sit and eat sticky baklava sweets with mint tea. Behind his chair are portraits of Israel’s prime minister and president, as well as an Israeli flag. The tableau is in keeping with Gnaim’s – and the club’s – central message: that the Arab community, loyal but proud, is an integral part of Israeli society. “The club,” says Gnaim, “sends a political and social message to everybody: we exist here in this piece of land, and we can succeed.”

The mayor is at pains to portray football as an inclusive activity, an area where the political and ethnic fault-lines that mark Israel can be overcome. But his face clouds over with sadness when I ask him about the racist slurs and anti-Arab sentiment chanted from the terraces every week. “When we go to the stadiums of Bnei Yehuda [a rightwing, strongly Mizrahi club in Tel Aviv] and to Beitar Jerusalem, I feel disgust. When I hear them chant ‘Death to the Arabs’ it doesn’t bother me, because I am a proud Arab,” says Gnaim. “But when they attack religious things, and sing ‘Mohammed is a homosexual’ – that is like a knife through my heart.”

Just a short walk from the mayor’s office stands the house of Abbas Swan. Until recently considered one of Israel’s best midfielders, Swan is hugely popular among ordinary Israelis and a sporting icon to the country’s Arab community. At 33, he is now in the twilight of his career, but he remains a fine footballer and a thoughtful man. Above all, he continues to work and argue tirelessly to rid the league of racism, and champion the cause of Arab-Israeli co-existence.

At one point, he was even ready to move to Beitar Jerusalem as a player. Beitar’s owner offered a handsome sum of money, and Swan himself thought his presence could defuse anti-Arab sentiment on the terraces. He was wrong: Jerusalem’s fans staged demonstrations to keep him out, and eventually the club’s management dropped the idea. To this day, Beitar Jerusalem has never fielded an Israeli-Palestinian player. Swan is still furious: “I think Beitar is the only club in the world that actually has rules about not accepting players from one group.” (Ohayon, the Beitar fan, told me earlier that he could not bear the thought of a Palestinian player refusing to sing the Israeli national anthem before Beitar matches. “This is a nationalist club,” he added.)

Swan has just returned from practice when I meet him, and is dressed in black jeans, a black T-shirt and trainers. Polite and courteous, he seems tired, and occasionally betrays signs of irritation, especially when I ask how he felt when his fellow players on the national squad stood to sing the Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem that speaks of Jews’, and only the Jews’, yearning for the land. “Again questions about the Hatikva?” he mutters.

There is a hint of sadness as he looks back on the long years during which he tried to use his status as a football star to bridge the divide between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. He says he is disheartened by the most recent Israeli elections, and the rightwing government, but also by the growing radicalisation on the Palestinian side. “I used to think that we should keep football and politics separate, but now that politics is getting so radical on both sides, I think we shouldn’t separate them,” he says.

And yet despite everything, despite the racist chants and the hatred that greets him and his team-mates on some Israeli terraces, he clings to his belief that sports can help heal social divides. “Football is for the people, it is there to bring people together,” he says. He is anxious to wrap up our conversation. It is past midday, and he wants to leave for his prayers in a separate living room next-door.

Swan is at pains to make clear that will not give up his fight for a country in which Jews and Muslims – the Ohayons, the Gnaims and everyone in between – can find their place, both on and off the football pitch. “All my life,” he says, “I am an optimist.”

Tobias Buck is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief. His last story for the FT Weekend Magazine was about clans in the Gaza Strip. Read it at


Premier divisions: the main rivalries

Beitar Jerusalem
Beitar is the bastion of the right wing. The club, which traces its historical roots back to the nationalist Herut party, to this day refuses to field Arab players; its supporters are notorious for anti-Arab chants. Beitar has a strong following among the Mizrahim, Israeli Jews who came from Middle Eastern countries. It is also the team of choice for rightwing politicians.

Bnei Sakhnin
A small, struggling club from a small, struggling town in northern Israel, Sakhnin is the most prominent Arab team in the country’s first division. In 2004, it scored its biggest success to date, winning the Israeli State Cup Final and sparking jubilation among Israel’s one million Palestinians.

Hapoel Tel Aviv
The team is the standard-bearer of the Israeli left, and also has a strong following among Israel’s Palestinian minority. It was the last club to cut formal links with politics, in this case the trade union movement and Labour party. At home matches, fans unroll banners emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara.

Maccabi Tel Aviv
Playing in yellow and blue, Maccabi Tel Aviv are the perennial champions of Israel, boasting the biggest fan base and the fullest trophy cabinet of any team in the country. The club has supporters from all walks of life; once associated with the Liberal Zionist party, it has long since severed any political ties.

Maccabi Haifa
In recent years more successful even than its Tel Aviv namesake, Maccabi Haifa hails from a city with an unusually large Palestinian minority. The team is supported by both communities, and has a long history of fielding Arab players. This year’s performance in the Uefa Champions League was, however, woeful.

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