One is a mixed Arab team and the other boasts of remaining "pure" Jewishby Nicholas Blincoe / September 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
All of the great football teams in Israel and Palestine emerged out of political rivalries. Perhaps the greatest rivalry is a contemporary one: the conflict between two of the teams in Israel’s Premier League—Bnei Sakhnin, the only top flight club from an Arab town, and Beitar Jerusalem, the club whose fans boast it is “forever pure” because it has never included a Palestinian in its squad.
There is a memorial on the road leading into the isolated Galilee city of Sakhnin that commemorates the deaths of six protesters on 30th March 1976. The date has since become an annual protest for the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, known as Land Day. Sakhnin is small, home to just 27,000 Muslims and 6,000 Christians, but it is famous for two things: Land Day and football.
The story of the Sons of Sakhnin United FC (Bnei Sakhnin in Hebrew, Abna Sakhnin in Arabic) began in 1991 with the merger of the town’s two teams. The route to success was slow but steady: Sakhnin reached Israel’s second tier in 1997. As Sakhnin climbed, the local police chief, Inspector Guy Reif, began imposing restrictions by closing games to the public or delaying starts.
Once Sakhnin reached the second division, he banned the team from using the home ground, claiming that its position made it too difficult to police. The club was forced to hire temporary grounds in Haifa, losing out financially as well as losing the traditional home-side advantage.
The situation changed as a result of another protest, this time in reaction to Ariel Sharon’s explosive march around the al-Aqsa compound in 2002. The TV coverage is credited with sparking the Second Intifada in the occupied territories. It is forgotten that the first protests began inside Israel. In the days immediately following, 12 Arab Israeli citizens (and a thirteenth, a boy from Gaza who was visiting relatives) were shot dead by police. Five of the dead came from Sakhnin.
The investigation into the deaths revealed that Inspector Reif had confronted protesters with just a single junior officer. Reif fired at the crowd killing at least one youth. Another child killed at a road junction was wearing the T-shirt of a charity that promoted Jewish-Arab coexistence.
The internal police investigation found only minor operational defects, but at a second external investigation, the Or Inquiry, Reif’s testimony went poorly. He returned to the police station armed with his service pistol and began firing at the building. When Reif’s officers ran out to the street, they found their hapless chief in a state of distress.
Soon, he was weeping and begging his officers to ignore the shots and pretend they had not seen him. Reif was not charged for the shooting but was subsequently fired on the advice of the inquiry.
When Reif’s successor overturned the ban on games at Sakhnin’s stadium, results improved dramatically. In 2003 Sakhnin won promotion to the Premier League and hired an experienced new manager, the Jewish-Israeli Eyal Lahman. Once again, Sakhnin had to find a new stadium, as the Israeli FA judged Sakhnin’s home ground was unsuitable for top-flight football. Given their poverty and lack of facilities, the club was widely predicted to drop back to the lower division.
Remarkably, in their first season, the team won the Israel Cup. The hero of the 2003–4 season was Abbas Suan, a home-grown midfield player and club talisman. Lahman drilled Sakhnin into a defensive side, and Suan’s tenacity breathed life into the dour strategy. Everyone describes Suan as the one player who will simply never give up: he is always looking for a way to win. Games that might easily have been draws kept turning in Sakhnin’s favour. On the way to the Cup final, Sakhnin twice ended matches with penalty shootouts, and Sakhnin players kept their nerve to win. Both times, Suan set the tone by taking the first strike.
It was a popular win. All the Hebrew-language newspapers congratulated Sakhnin, often in Arabic, while opinion pieces spoke about a new dawn. The chairman, Mazen Ghnaim, had often spoken of his desire to create a “Rainbow Team” and this took on a prophetic aura as the goodwill flowed. Israel’s President, Shimon Peres speculated that it would change Israel for ever. Ronnie Bar-On, a Likud MP, praised Sakhnin as an Israeli team winning an Israeli victory, while also noting they were from an Arab town. Sakhnin was a team with a Jewish manager, and had won the Cup with goals from two Jews and a Brazilian Catholic. Yet, as Bar-On’s comments inadvertently made clear, this was the “Arab” sector. Israel is a multifaith and multi-ethnic society and it always will be. But it was only in the margins, in towns like Sakhnin, that it was possible to see the outline of an Israel that reflected this reality.
The year Sakhnin won the Israel Cup, fans of rival team Beitar Jerusalem posted a black-framed advert in a Jerusalem newspaper declaring that Israeli football had died. In the next weeks, these fans created a new “Ultras” faction named “La Familia.” The name honours the Italian roots of all football Ultras, but also looks back to “The Fighting Family,” a term used in the immediate post-war period by the veterans of the right-wing militias Lehi, Irgun and Beitar. By taking the name La Familia, the Beitar fans were indulging in fantasies inspired by The Godfather films, but they were also showing they knew their history. Of course they did: the story of Lehi and the Irgun is on the national curriculum, and tours of the museum are part of their national service duty.
La Familia’s Ultras are patriots for a city they believe is scorned by Israel’s elites. They have embraced the anger and resentment of the Beitar story, which at heart is a story that the Jewish homeland is under greater threat from appeasement by fellow Jews than from Arabs. Beitar Jerusalem was founded in 1936 and its members were soon involved in the violence that accompanied the Palestinian General Strike. The team was outlawed by the British, and many of the original club members were exiled in an African detention camp in 1948 when Ben Gurion declared independence. When they finally got back, they discovered that Ben Gurion was negotiating an armistice with Jordan via the United Nations that placed the old city of Jerusalem outside of Israel’s borders.
From the 1950s through the 1960s, Beitar Jerusalem were a second division team, playing in the aging YMCA stadium, but this was the only football in Jerusalem and the game represented a cheap form of entertainment to new immigrant families from Morocco, Iraq and Syria. These immigrants are the “Second Israel,” so called because they arrived after the creation of the state. They brought their own unhappy stories of being driven from their homes in Baghdad or Damascus by revolutions and sectarian hatred. In Israel, they found new complaints. The prejudice they experienced from European Jews seemed to amount to a form of racial discrimination. The Mizrahim—the Jews of the the Middle East—were blocked from rising through society, in large part because they were forced to live far away from the coastal hub of Israeli life. They were literally dumped on the fringes of the country in transit camps, before being moved to poorly built towns with inferior schools and health services like the desert city of Be’er Sheva.
For much of Israel’s life, Jerusalem, too, was a fringe city. Iraqi and Moroccan immigrants lived in vertiginous housing projects, with poor transport links, roofs that leaked in the wet winter months and windows that rattled in the high winds blowing off the desert. The Labour Party was blamed for treating the Second Israel as commodities to populate the hard-to-reach cities. In Jerusalem, the Mizrahim not only supported the Beitar team, they absorbed the Beitar politics.
You do not have to step far off the tourist trail to discover Jerusalem is a damaged and ugly city. Outside of an elite professional class, the city is composed of just three communities, all of whom loathe each other. It is home to the country’s largest community of Mizrahi Jews. It also has the highest proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Finally, Jerusalem is the largest Palestinian city with the Old City and East Jerusalem still an overcrowded, Arabic-speaking dilapidated metropolis. Taken together—Mizrahim, Haredim and Falastin—these are the three largest minorities in Israel, and by a wide margin the poorest of Israel’s communities, all concentrated in one city.
Jerusalem is built upon poverty, divisions and military installations. Yet Jerusalem is also Israel’s “Eternal Capital” as the slogan runs; it is supposed to be a beautiful and holy city. If Jerusalem is essential to Jewish nationalism, then the fans of Beitar are perhaps right to believe that only their presence keeps the dream of all Israel alive. After all, 70 per cent of Israelis live on the Mediterranean coast, and rarely visit Jerusalem.
Beitar Jerusalem outgrew the second division in 1968, the year after Israeli forces captured the Old City and the West Bank. It was a quick lesson in how fresh resources and money could benefit the team, its fans and Jerusalemites in general. Over the years, however, Beitar has had a myriad of financial problems. There have been attempts to relegate the club for disciplinary and financial infractions. Beitar always escaped sanctions, because it was owned by the Likud Party. The board even included politicians such as Ehud Olmert, the Mayor of Jerusalem who succeeded Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister.
Beitar’s first trophy came in June 1976 with a 2–1 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Israel Cup. That September, they followed this up by claiming the Super Cup. These back-to-back victories were seen as augurs for the rise of Likud, and the party duly won the May 1977 elections.
The move from the YMCA to the current Teddy Stadium in 1991 was a long time in the planning. The move marked football’s expulsion from downtown Jerusalem by the Haredim but the stadium proved lucky for Beitar. As the country moved rightwards, Beitar kept winning, showing a knack for capturing the national spirit. It was only in 1999 that the club severed the formal relation with the Likud. A piece of land used as training facilities was sold to raise money during the privatisation process. The profits from its sale played a significant part in the corruption charges against Prime Minister Olmert, the highest-ranking Israeli official to be jailed for corruption. La Familia are locked in a conflict with a new owner, tech entrepreneur Moshe Hogeg, who hopes to oversee a more liberal regime. For now, the banner “For Ever Pure” still flies at home games.
Sakhnin, in contrast, has always included players from all of Israel’s communities. At the end of the 2014–15 season, the goalkeeper Ran Kadoch posted an image on Facebook showing six Sakhnin players celebrating a goal: four were on their knees in a Muslim prayer, one was making the Christian sign of the cross, and Kadoch was saying a Jewish prayer. Beitar represents one extreme in Israel: Sakhnin another. Sakhnin is in a double-bind, however, because only a Palestinian club could represent an Israel at ease with its minorities. This is an attractive vision to many Israelis, but it opens the doors to a different state, and no one is sure if this means a peaceful multicultural future, or the kind of fractured dystopia already reflected in present-day Jerusalem.
This is an edited extract of Nicholas Blincoe’s More Noble Than War: The Story of Football in Israel and Palestine (Constable, £20)