An Israeli Soccer Team’s Toxic Fan Base

A club that once represented the downtrodden became an arm of the establishment before hooligan supporters quickly gained a reputation for violence

An Israeli Soccer Team’s Toxic Fan Base
Members of “La Familia”, a far-right fan group of the Israeli Beitar Jerusalem football club, confront supporters of the purchase during the club’s training session in Jerusalem on December 11, 2020 / Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images

The pass is perfect, and Zaur Sadayev takes it without breaking stride. As the goalkeeper rushes out to narrow the angle, Sadayev rolls it into the far corner. Beitar Jerusalem is up 1-0 against Maccabi Netanya, a vital goal in the fight to escape relegation.

The crowd initially erupts and then stops. A mutinous mood takes hold as cheers turn to boos, and then a large section of the East Stand of the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem heads for the exits. “They are protesting the goal,” says the commentator, disbelieving. A man in yellow-and-black turns to confront Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is applauding nervously. “Where are your principles, Lieberman?” he roars. “You son of a bitch.” The sense of betrayal is profound. How could any Beitar Jerusalem supporter celebrate a goal scored by a Muslim?

Such was the “Chechen Affair,” captured in Maya Zinshtein’s documentary “Forever Pure” (2016) — about a notorious soccer club at its grisly worst. The name is taken from a banner displayed at the debut of two Chechen Muslim players, Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, who were signed in 2012 in violation of a rule strictly enforced by Beitar’s hooligan supporters known as “La Familia”: no Muslims allowed.

The walkout and banner were part of a sustained hate campaign. Goalkeeper Ariel Harush became a target for a few pleasantries welcoming the Chechens. La Familia pitched camp outside the house of club director Itzik Kornfein and sang about raping his daughter. Two fans burned down Beitar’s museum, which held many priceless historical pieces. Sadayev and Kadiyev endured a season of trauma and headed straight for Ben Gurion Airport after the last match.

None of this is out of character for one of the most toxic fan bases in world soccer, with a rap sheet that includes beatings, stabbings and continual displays of overt racism. The songbook from the stands is spine-chilling: “Death to Arabs,” “May your village burn” and celebrations of mass murderer Baruch Goldstein and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir.

But how did Beitar become this way? This is the question at the heart of journalist and soccer nut Shaul Adar’s new book “On the Border,” which explores how the Israeli experience — and in particular the Jerusalem experience — shaped Beitar Jerusalem. If there is a “Jerusalem Syndrome,” to describe visitors who become overwhelmed by messianism in the holy city, Adar contends there is also a “Beitar Jerusalem Syndrome” with even more severe effects.

The club has its roots in the Beitar movement that emerged from Latvia in the 1920s. Beitar espoused a hardline, maximalist vision of Zionism under the leadership of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, author of the “Iron Wall” doctrine, which stated that the Jewish nation must establish a position of unassailable strength from which to dictate to defeated Palestinians. This was in contrast with the more pragmatic approach of other early Zionist leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion.

Jewish soccer surged in Ottoman Palestine with waves of immigration from Eastern Europe during the early 20th century. The first Jewish club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, was established in 1906. The British Mandate period brought structure with the introduction of league and cup competitions. In 1929, the freshly established Eretz Yisrael Football Association secured membership with FIFA, the international soccer governing body, with support from Egypt and the Arab Sport Club of Jerusalem.

Months later, Beitar members announced their presence in Jerusalem with a march claiming ownership of the Western Wall. This prompted a counterprotest from Muslims who believed the wall to be part of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Tensions over the city’s disputed holy sites and the pace of Jewish immigration erupted in a week of bloody riots said to have begun with a misunderstanding over a lost soccer ball.

Across the country, Palestinians attacked Jewish communities, with the worst violence in Hebron, where more than 60 Jews were massacred. In Jaffa, a Jewish police officer led a revenge attack that killed seven Palestinian family members. By the end of the week, 133 Jews and at least 116 Palestinians were dead. Historian Hillel Cohen argues that 1929 marked “Year Zero” of the conflict that continues today, leaving a lasting “rupture” between Jews and Palestinians.

In 1931, Beitar members formed the Irgun militia under the leadership of future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, which carried out dozens of deadly attacks against the British authorities and Palestinian civilians. The movement then launched soccer clubs Beitar Tel Aviv in 1934 and Beitar Jerusalem in 1936. Many players were also militia members, such as Asher Benziman, who was killed in an attack on a British intelligence base. The Beitar clubs were excluded from the main league and cup competitions by the established clubs, fueling an enduring sense of grievance, before the entire movement was outlawed by the British in 1947.

The outsider mentality was further shaped by Irgun’s relationship with Haganah, the dominant Zionist paramilitary, which would form the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Haganah took ownership of the struggle for statehood and harshly suppressed the Irgun and Lehi factions, favoring a degree of cooperation with the British while the latter groups pursued violent confrontation. This antagonism climaxed with the battle for the Altalena shortly after Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. The ship, loaded with weapons for Irgun, was seized by the IDF, resulting in a shootout that killed 20 militia members and five IDF soldiers. The scars of that perceived betrayal never healed.

Independent militias were dissolved after independence, but the Beitar clubs were admitted to the new Israeli league, with Beitar Jerusalem joining the second division. The club drew its support primarily from poor Mizrahi neighborhoods and camps, which lacked access to services and education. The politics of those neighborhoods was typically conservative and nationalist, and they became a natural constituency for Begin’s newly formed Herut party, which would later become Likud. Begin channeled Mizrahi grievances into resentment toward the Ashkenazi elite and “their” city, Tel Aviv.

On the field, the enemy took many shapes. Israeli soccer had come to be dominated by the Hapoel and Maccabi franchises, which accounted for almost every team in the first division. Hapoel players came from Israel’s trade confederation Histadrut, and their teams played in red with a hammer and sickle on their badge. The Maccabis were associated with wealth and status, particularly the oldest and most successful team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. Beitar Jerusalem fans, typically right-wing and with lower social status, hated both for different reasons.

The club’s fans swiftly established a reputation for violence. Supporters assaulted the Hapoel Jerusalem goalkeeper before a match. Another match, against Hapoel Tel Aviv, was suspended when Beitar supporters stormed the field to attack the referee, and they burned the goalposts at the end. A newspaper report from a game against Hapoel Petach Tikva described “a crowd of bloodthirsty madmen that charged onto the pitch in order to lynch anybody who stood in its way.”

Beitar Jerusalem struggled to establish itself at the top of Israeli soccer, with promotion in 1954 followed by relegation the following season, while its rivals split the trophies. Adar suggests the club was held back by the religious conservatism of its environment, as the Haredi — ultra-Orthodox — communities of Jerusalem were typically opposed to soccer and delayed the construction of a modern stadium. More than one-third of the city’s population now identify as Haredi — compared with a national figure of 13% — shrinking the pool of potential match-going supporters.

Success finally began to materialize with promotion to the first division in the season after the Six-Day War of 1967, with future Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin and his brother Eliezer in leadership roles. After a period of consolidation, the club began to challenge the leading clubs. Beitar narrowly missed winning the championship in 1972 and claimed its first trophy — the State Cup — in 1976, beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final.

Beitar’s golden period would continue with the emergence of two of the club’s — and Israel’s — greatest-ever players, prolific midfielder Uri Malmilian and wing wizard Eli Ohana — stars from poor backgrounds who could realize their supporters’ fantasies by humbling the elite. Both became iconic figures. “Malmilian” became a byword for quality, and a hairstyle was named after Ohana. Beitar won the State Cup a second time in 1979 and competed for the league title.

With the success and charms of its leading men, the club shed at least part of its snarling image and won enough new supporters to become one of the more popular teams in the country. This coincided with advances in society for marginalized Mizrahi communities as their music and cinema, previously suppressed, broke through into the mainstream. Israeli soccer, generally, was advancing too, both in popularity and quality, having taken a leap forward with the national team’s first and only appearance at a World Cup in 1970.

But with success, Beitar was drawn ever more deeply into the maelstrom of Israeli politics, with right-wing leaders claiming ownership of its supporters. Beitar fans were active in the election of their hero Begin — whose face is still painted on the walls of Mizrahi neighborhoods — as leader of Likud in 1977, ending three decades of Mapai and Labour rule. Malmilian described Begin’s victory as his greatest accomplishment. Begin played on Mizrahi grievances again in a successful, sectarian campaign to be reelected in 1981.

A club representing the downtrodden had become an arm of the establishment and the association between Beitar and Likud strengthened as both became increasingly dominant — while still presenting themselves as outsiders. Beitar Jerusalem finally claimed its first league title in 1987, shortly before the outbreak of the First Intifada, and Likud was reelected the following year.

In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu took power for the first time and busily associated himself with the club. He was presented to supporters performing skills on the field at the new Teddy Stadium and attended matches with Likud grandees. Beitar won the title that season and the following season. Rivlin taunted opponents in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset: “Beitar Jerusalem are champions. Bibi [Netanyahu] won the election. Put that well in your heads.” Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert joined supporters for celebrations in the city center to rapturous acclaim.

Adar believes that period marked the beginning of a descent into darkness for the club. As the cautious hope of the Oslo Accords was violently destroyed with the assassination of Rabin and then the Second Intifada, the nationalist right took control of Israeli politics with Beitar as their symbol. More extreme elements attached themselves to the club and used it for recruitment such as far-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and the Kahanist movement. Racist hooliganism became a more prevalent feature of match days at the Teddy Stadium, demonstrated by the ferocious abuse of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Cameroonian player, Cyrille Makanaky.

The radicalization of Beitar coincided with the rise of Arab Israelis — or Palestinians — within Israeli soccer. Hapoel Tayibe became the first Arab club to reach the first division in 1996. They were relegated the following season and were quickly surpassed by Bnei Sakhnin, which enjoyed an extended stay in the top-flight and became the first Arab club to win a trophy in Israel with the State Cup in 2004. A Beitar Jerusalem fan group responded with 24 hours of mourning. The clubs shared a fierce rivalry with matches stained by hate and violence. While every other Jewish Israeli club began to sign Arab and Muslim players, Beitar held out as an article of faith.

In 2005, the La Familia hooligan group was created and swiftly gained power in the stands. Songs such as “Death to Arabs” became normal, as did assaults on rivals and even fellow supporters. In 2012, a La Familia mob of hundreds was filmed swarming a Jerusalem mall randomly attacking Arabs. Then came the Chechen signings and the wave of hatred that greeted them.

That prompted a backlash of sorts. Sponsors abandoned the club. Some fans broke away to form a new club, Beitar Nordia. Even Netanyahu denounced the burning of the club museum. Owner Arcadi Gaydamak, a Russian-born business owner who made his fortune in the arms trade, left soon after, although most observers believe the decision was motivated by personal interests as much as principle.

None of this broke the stranglehold of La Familia and the further deterioration of the club. Beitar no longer competes with the elite and has not won a trophy since 2009. Its reputation deters players and managers. The stadium often sits half empty. The club has struggled through a succession of controversial owners. Gaydamak’s replacement, Eli Tabib, presided over decline that was disguised by an attempt to rename the club Beitar Trump Jerusalem. The current owner, Moshe Hogeg, made waves by announcing that Emirati business owner Hamad bin Khalifa would acquire 50% of the club, before it was revealed that Bin Khalifa lacked the finances. Hogeg has since been arrested on suspicion of fraud, theft and money laundering, and investigated for underage prostitution, but retains his position at the club. La Familia has morphed into a far-right street movement that terrorizes Arabs and leftists and played a prominent role in organized attacks on Arabs during the riots of 2021.

“Beitar never recovered from the winter of 2013, the ‘Forever Pure’ banner, the Chechens, the La Familia triumph,” Adar says. What is left is “poor and deformed, an empty shell.” But the club cannot be divorced from its context, a product of the violence and tribalism that has marked Jerusalem for generations, caught up in the political currents dragging the country further into nationalist chauvinism, and offers a warning about where that leads.

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