Arson attack highlights racism in Israeli soccer

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Photo -   Burned Beitar Jerusalem soccer club trophies, the result of an apparent arson attack, are seen at the offices the leading Israeli soccer club Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. The attack is shining a spotlight on longstanding concerns over the growing anti-Arab racism among the nation’s soccer fans. The fire, which destroyed historic trophies and mementos, comes after the team veered away from its unofficial tradition and signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, enraging its most xenophobic fan-base that has a history of chanting anti-Islam slurs at games. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Burned Beitar Jerusalem soccer club trophies, the result of an apparent arson attack, are seen at the offices the leading Israeli soccer club Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. The attack is shining a spotlight on longstanding concerns over the growing anti-Arab racism among the nation’s soccer fans. The fire, which destroyed historic trophies and mementos, comes after the team veered away from its unofficial tradition and signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, enraging its most xenophobic fan-base that has a history of chanting anti-Islam slurs at games. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — An apparent arson attack Friday on the offices of leading Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem has put a spotlight on longstanding concerns over growing anti-Arab racism among the nation's soccer fans.

The fire, which destroyed historic trophies and mementos, comes after the team broke with its unofficial tradition and signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, enraging its most xenophobic fan-base that has a history of chanting anti-Islam slurs at games.

The incident drew immediate rebukes and promises of a crackdown by authorities ahead of a charged home game against an Arab team that will likely be the debut match for one of the new Muslim players.

Beitar has long tried to contain a tightly knit fan group called "La Familia" whose behavior has had the team docked points and forced it to play before empty stadiums. The group is routinely abusive toward opposing players, taunting them with racist and anti-Arab chants.

Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel's population, now star on the Israeli national team and on every first division team besides Beitar. Some of the league's top goal scorers are Arabs and one team, Bnei Sakhnin, is entirely Arab.

But only after the signing of the Chechnyans did a full-fledged confrontation erupt between the Beitar fans and team management. At the first game after the move, fans unfurled large banners with racist undertones, such as one that read "Beitar pure forever."

When the team refused to back down, the fans turned abusive and began cursing and spitting at players and management. Fearing for the safety of its newest arrivals from Chechnya, Beitar was forced to assign bodyguards to Zaur Sadayev, a 23-year-old forward, and Gabriel Kadiev, a 19-year-old defender, who were both brought over from FC Terek Grozny.

Players who stood up for their teammates were booed and threatened.

"I played in Holland and if I was greeted the way they have been greeted here I can't imagine the outrage there would have been in Israel," said defender Haim Megrelashvili.

With limited tools at his disposal, Head Coach Eli Cohen called on the state to intervene. "This is not just a problem of Beitar Jerusalem anymore," he said.

A day after four of the club's fans were charged with anti-Muslim chanting and police announced they would begin deploying undercover units at upcoming Beitar games, the team's training facility was firebombed in an early morning attack.

Following Friday's attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself a Beitar fan, issued a strongly worded condemnation denouncing those opposing integration at Beitar.

"Such behavior is shameful. We cannot accept such racist behavior. The Jewish people, who suffered from boycotts and ostracism, must be a light unto the nations," he said in a statement.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the attack left extensive damage to the team's administrative offices. Walls were charred, as were team trophies, soccer cleats, retired uniforms, championship photos and more. No arrests have been made yet, but Rosenfeld said police suspected the attack was linked to the signing of the new players and pledged police would use "every legal means in order to prevent the continual racism, which is basically destroying the club."

Last week, hundreds of police patrolled a game between Beitar and a second division team from the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. No major incidents were reported, and 12 fans from both sides were banned from the game. Police are planning heavy deployment next week when Beitar hosts Bnei Sakhnin.

Team spokesman Asaf Shaked said those who targeted the room that served as a type of team museum knew exactly what was in it.

"You can't put a price on the damage done. We are talking about things that have historical and emotional value," he said. "They (the arsonists) are like terrorists who go after what hurts most and that is what they did."

"La Familia," which is estimated to include between 200-300 members, had previously enjoyed a cult-like status among the team's larger fan base. Shaked hoped that would now change.

"Now people know how dangerous they are," he said. "Maybe this horrific incident will mark a turning point."

Beitar Jerusalem — which has won six league championships and seven cup titles in its 77-year history — is one of the powerhouses of Israeli soccer and has a legendary following that includes several Israeli prime ministers.

The team has historically been strongly aligned with Israel's nationalist right wing and its name, Beitar, comes from the Zionist youth movement that is linked to the ruling Likud Party.

The team and its fans have since been a steady source of support for Likud politics and a string of politicians have served as team chairman. Prime ministers with Likud roots — from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Netanyahu — have called themselves fans and made pilgrimages to the club's Teddy Stadium.

But as the Likud Party has become mainstream after years in government, many of Beitar's die-hard fans have gone more extreme.

Beitar's battles are similar to those European clubs have had with their fans. But while in Europe the racism is mostly directed toward blacks and immigrants, in Israel it is toward Arabs and Muslims.

"La Familia" was created in 2005, and it quickly became the team's loudest and most visible supporters. The fans routinely wave huge flags of the outlawed racist Kach party and chant "death to Arabs" and other racist slogans toward Arab players.

The club has been penalized numerous times for the behavior that has included booing during a moment of silence for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, singing songs deriding Islam's Prophet Muhammad and physically assaulting Arab maintenance workers in stadiums.

Their behavior has blossomed into a national embarrassment and drawn a cascade of condemnations from Israel's president, Jerusalem's mayor and other officials. Olmert recently said he would no longer attend games because of them.

For years, the club's Russian-Israeli owner Arkady Gaydamak refrained from intervening. In fact, he backed the group financially, glowed in their adoration and refused to sign an Arab player for fear of angering them.

After a failed attempt to run for Jerusalem mayor, Gaydamak fled the country in 2008 amid financial scandals in Israel and Europe. Since then, he has drastically cut funding to the team and tried to sell it several times.

Shlomi Barzel, the sports editor of Haaretz newspaper and a lifelong Beitar fan, said the signing of the Chechens came "out of the blue" and was likely an effort by Gaydamak to pursue his business interests in Chechnya.

Ironically, though, he said the move could mark a historic shift in the relationship between the team and its wayward fan base, exposing them as a paper tiger and ushering in a new era as the team attempts to become a mainstay in the European ranks.

"This 'La Familia' gang of bigots tried to flex their muscles and thought they were going to scare someone," he said. "The players and the vast majority of fans rejected them and the club didn't bend. This has turned them into even more outcasts than they were before."

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Follow Heller on Twitter (at)aronhellerap

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