Fans of Israeli soccer team Beitar Jerusalem, the storied bad boy of Israeli soccer that is the only club that systematically refuses to hire Palestinian players although they rank among Israelâ€™s top performers, responded furiously to Beitar owner and billionaire of Russian origin Arcadi Gaydamakâ€™s hiring of two Muslim players from Chechen team Terek Grozny. Beitar fans cursed Mr. Gaydamak during their clubâ€™s match last Saturday against Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv and vowed to prevent the Muslim players from playing. â€œThis will happen over my dead body. We wonâ€™t accept it. Every second theyâ€™re on the field weâ€™ll drive them mad until they ask to leave,â€ one fan said. â€œBeitar will remain pure forever,â€ read a Beitar banner during the match.
Mr. Gaydamak auspiciously made his announcement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and only days after he lost an appeal against his conviction in France on charges of corruption. In an interview with Ynet, Mr Gaydamak said that â€œas far as Iâ€™m concerned, there is no difference between a Jewish player and a Muslim player. We must look at things professionally, we must treat them nicely and fairly. There have always been good relations between the Muslims in Russia and the Caucasus and the Jews.â€ Mr. Gaydamak was further quoted in the Israeli press as saying that his clubâ€™s poor performance and financial troubles had made it possible to stand up against the racism of its fans. â€œThis is something that weâ€™ve wanted to do at Beitar for many years, and itâ€™s been made possible now because of the teamâ€™s financial state and the need to strengthen the squad. The aim is to put an end to the racism that has been doing harm to Beitar over the years, and not to give in to a handful of extremists,â€ he said.
Beitarâ€™s coach, however, defended his ownerâ€™s move with a hint of racism of his own. â€œI donâ€™t understand the fans who donâ€™t want to see a Muslim player in Beitar. There are a billion Muslims in the world and we must learn how to live with them. There is a difference between a European Muslim and an Arab Muslim, and the fans here have a problem with Arabs living in the Middle East,â€ said Beitar coach Eli Cohen. Similarly, Beitar spokesman Assaf Shaked drew a distinction between Muslims and Arabs. â€œWe are against racism and against violence and we pay a price for our fans. But we arenâ€™t going to bring an Arab player just to annoy the fans,â€ Mr. Shaked said.
In a strongly worded letter to IFA chairman Avi Luzon, Israeli president Shimon Peres said: â€œI appeal, through you, to all football fans to refrain from all expressions and manifestations of racism in football stadiums and outside of them. Racism has struck the Jewish people harder than any other nation in the world. The authorities must prevent it before it starts. Today, sport is a universal declaration against racism. It is unacceptable for the opposite to take place in Israel.â€
Beitar has the worst disciplinary record in Israelâ€™s Premier League. Since 2005 it has faced more than 20 hearings and has received various punishments, including point deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors because of its fansâ€™ racist behavior. Beitar fans last year stormed a Jerusalem mall and beat up Palestinian shoppers and workers. They subsequently attacked a Jewish woman musician on a Jerusalem street because she denounced their politics. Beitarâ€™s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. Itâ€™s mostly Sephardic fans of Middle Eastern and North African origin, revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
Beitar, who is supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shocked even Israelis when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.