TEL AVIV — The Israeli national soccer league begins its new season on Saturday. But one of the most significant developments of the upcoming year may have happened last month.
On July 26, Israeli police arrested more than 50 members of La Familia, the official supporters’ group for Beitar Jerusalem. Several were suspected of attacking with an ax and seriously wounding a fan of arch-rival Hapoel Tel Aviv in October. Others, according to a police statement, had in their possession a kilogram of explosives, 29 flares of different sizes and dozens of grenades, some of which police believe were stolen from military bases by troops who belong to the group.
For more than a decade, La Familia has been a blight on Israeli soccer, a violently racist scourge that chants “death to Arabs” throughout matches and has pressured Beitar Jerusalem management — successfully, at least up to now — not to sign any Israeli-Arab players. But the arrests this summer could mean that the group’s power and infamy are finally waning.
Beitar Jerusalem is one of the big four clubs in Israel, along with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv. Although not all Beitar Jerusalem supporters are right-wing politically, La Familia’s members, who number more than 1,000, certainly are.
Politics is never far from anything in Israeli life, and soccer is no different. Historically, Maccabi Haifa has always had strong support from Israeli-Arabs. As for the Tel Aviv clubs, here is the difference between them: In September, Maccabi fans held up a banner saying, “Refugees not welcome.” A few days later, Hapoel fans responded with a banner saying, “Who isn’t a migrant here?”
More than any supporters’ group in Israel, though, La Familia has gained a reputation for anti-Arab racism and extreme violence, and it has exerted a powerful influence on the team.
All of the other big clubs in Israel have employed Israeli-Arab players at some point, but Beitar never has. Even the Israeli national team, which international soccer considers part of Europe in part because many Muslim nations in the Middle East won’t play against it, has Israeli-Arab players; in fact, the players on the Israeli national youth teams who show the most potential and talent are of Arab descent.
Last summer, the Palestinian Football Association, as part of a broader attempt to mount international boycotts of Israel, tried to get the Israeli team expelled from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. One reason it gave? Racism in Israeli soccer, specifically involving La Familia.
Despite all that, the group has never tried to hide its hatred. On the contrary, as Beitar Jerusalem players walk onto the pitch before every match, La Familia members lead the chant: “Here they come, the racist club of the country.”
They take pride in racism; it defines them.
Until July, the group seemed somehow untouchable. For years, politicians from left and right alike have called out La Familia and demanded that it be labeled a criminal organization and disbanded. They have even suggested that Beitar Jerusalem be kicked out of the Israel Football Association.
Others, though, stood behind them. Miri Regev, a Knesset member from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, has been photographed sitting with La Familia fans in the past and said last summer, “La Familia do not support racism or violence.” Now she is the national culture and sport minister.
For years, one condemnation after another led to nothing. One violent event after another, and nothing changed. One incident of racism after another, and still La Familia remained stronger than ever.
But the arrests are a good start. Maybe change is in the air. There are signs that the kind of racism La Familia has symbolized will not be tolerated.
For its supporters, change will be difficult. I have been following La Familia for years and have interviewed several current members and members who decided to leave. Individuals join La Familia to feel a part of something. To have a “brotherhood,” as one member once told me. Suddenly, you are a member of a big family in which everyone looks out for one another. One member who left explained to me that he had never met an Arab and that he learned his racism from La Familia.
The challenge is to teach something new and different. And there are some very good things going on in Israeli soccer, and in Jerusalem in particular.
Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, a fan-owned club established in 2007 that plays in Israel’s second tier, has worked hard on establishing ties with the Jewish and Arab communities within Jerusalem. The club’s youth teams are composed of Arabs and Jews from all over the city.
Unlike Beitar Jerusalem, Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem has signed several Israeli-Arab players. At every home match, you will find anti-racist and anti-fascist banners. The club’s management also replaced the usual corner flag with a rainbow flag to honor LGBT rights at a match last year and sent a delegation from the club to join this year’s Jerusalem gay pride parade.
Another fan-owned club trying to make a positive difference is Beitar Nordia Jerusalem. The fourth-division club was formed in 2014 by a group of Beitar Jerusalem supporters who were tired of the racism and violence they saw within the big club. One of its first moves was to sign an Israeli-Arab.
So maybe this summer’s arrests show that it’s finally time for La Familia to pay the price. And Jerusalem can start making headlines in the international soccer media for the right reasons.