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The Uncivil Servant: Soccer and Murder in Israel

Mitchell Abidor
July 15, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor mohammed-abu-khudair-pictured-undated-family-photo-israeli-authorities-have-arrested-group THE NEWS THAT THE MEN RESPONSIBLE for the burning alive of Muhammad Abu-Khudair first met as supporters of the Israeli soccer team Beitar Jerusalem, and were involved with its most radical group of fans, La Familia, should surprise no one. The killers were certain to be either settlers, supporters of the far right, or ultra-Orthodox, and in Israel there is one place where all of these faces of Israeli reaction meet: Teddy Kollek Stadium, the home of Beitar Jerusalem. The team's fans went on a rampage in a mall in 2012 chanting, “Muhammad is dead.” They waged demonstrations and burned down the team’s offices when Beitar Jerusalem signed — in 2013! — their first Muslim players, a move the fans were against because Muslim players were “opposed to the team’s values.” Those values, as described by an Israeli Arab who played on the Israeli national team, include “having racism in its DNA.” Beitar Jerusalem fans make monkey noises when African players touch the ball. At a game against Tel Aviv Hapoel in 2011, they chanted against Tel Aviv’s Israeli Arab player Salim Tuama, “This is the land of Israel, Tuama/This is the land of the Jews/I hate you Salim Tuama/I hate all the Arabs” — about which the TV announcer said, “Today we definitely got an impressive show of support from the Beitar fans.” The team is steeped in racism, and though all of its supporters aren’t racist and anti-Arab, it’s a safe bet that if someone is racist and anti-Arab, Beitar Jerusalem is their team. The fans of Beitar aren’t the only fans to make monkey noises, and the throwing of bananas at black players is a commonplace in Europe. That other teams have racist supporters is not a secret. That Beitar’s fans should take their racism outside the stadium and engage in racial murder with a political impact makes them unique. As its name indicates, Beitar Jerusalem is an outgrowth of Jabotinsky’s fascist Beitar movement. That it still bears its historic name is not out of the ordinary: the names of most Israeli teams still testify to their connections to two specific movements of the British Mandatory period, Hapoel and Makkabi. What is different in the Beitar Jerusalem case is that while the original working-class and socialist underpinnings of the Hapoel teams have vanished, leaving nothing but the name, Beitar Jerusalem remains faithful to its racist and fascist roots. That it was, until last year, the only Israeli team not to have signed a Muslim, and when it did so didn’t sign an Arab, testifies to the team’s retrograde attitude. So it attracts the worst elements of the Israeli body politic, for here is a team that still represents Jewish racial purity, that shuns non-Jewish players, that wants an Israel shed of the impure, i.e., non-Jews. It was once the team of the Irgun, some of its members actually being members of Begin’s terrorist group. What could be more natural than that its ideology not having changed, the acts of its followers should be the same? LIEL LEBOVITZ, IN HIS EXCELLENT ARTICLE in Tablet, lays out the racist background of Beitar’s fans and their role in the killing, and also highlights other soccer-related killings elsewhere in the world. That soccer fans have senselessly killed is certainly true. But Leibovitz is dead wrong when he ends by writing, “The truth is that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority, settler rabbis and Hamas all have nothing to do with the terrible events that unfurled after six lowlifes forced a sweet-faced kid into their car and burned him alive. Soccer does. So please, enough with the ancient hatreds and the cycle of violence. The death of Muhammed Abu-Khudair is a terrible tragedy, but it’s not one unique to Israel. Anyone who watches soccer more frequently than a few matches every four years understands that intuitively.” This is a curious way of trying to exculpate Israeli leadership and Israeli society for the climate that led to the killing of Abu-Khudair. The examples Leibovitz cites in his article, killings in Poland and Norway and Spain, speak to the kind of insane and senseless violence that results in people being killed for wearing the wrong team colors, for supporting the wrong team. The killing of Abu-Khudair is far beyond that. It is an escalation of soccer thuggery to political and racial murder. This is not a difference in degree; it is a difference in kind. And though Leibovitz tries to lay everything at the door of the lunatics of La Familia, a casual perusal of YouTube for clips of Beitar Jerusalem games shows the entire stadium joining in racist chants: La Familia is extreme, but they are part of a continuum of Beitar fans. Muhammad Abu-Khudair wasn’t killed as he walked out of a stadium: his killers drove around in the early morning hours till they found a victim waiting outside a mosque. He wasn’t killed because he supported Ashdod FC and not Beitar Jerusalem, he was killed because he is an Arab. It is not soccer that killed Abu-Khudair: it is the racism endemic to Israel, a racism that the dehumanization of the Occupation has made possible, of which Beitar Jerusalem’s fans are just one expression. Postscript: The murderous Israeli attacks in Gaza did not go unnoticed by the players in the World Cup, which ended on July 13 with the Germans winning the trophy. The entire Algerian national team donated its bonus for reaching the knockout rounds, $7,875,000, to the children of Gaza, and Mesut Ozil, the German star of Turkish origin, donated $600,000 in bonuses to Gaza, according to a representative. Other unnamed Muslilm players have also given their bonuses to the people of Gaza. There's soccer and murder, and there's soccer and solidarity. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.