But in a striking move, a Tel Aviv tech magnate who bought the team last year is taking on La Familia. Moshe Hogeg has pledged to rid the fan base of racism and nativism — even having his lawyers send fans letters threatening lawsuits — and signed an African player named Ali Mohamed. La Familia read that as a challenge, though Mohamed is actually Christian.
Hogeg’s effort to remake Beitar Jerusalem and reform its fans has become a flash point in Israel’s class wars, which pit an old-line working class against the nouveau riche.
Israel’s elections last week revealed a country that is fiercely polarized, divided between religious and secular, hawkish and moderate. But in many ways, it is the schism between the working class, so loyal to longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Beitar Jerusalem, and the liberal elite that spurns both of them that has left Israeli politics so desperately deadlocked.
The question now is whether Netanyahu’s Likud party and its rival Blue and White party will find a way to reach across the divide and perhaps form a unity government.
The fault line is one of both class and culture. Critics of La Familia may call it nativist and racist, but its members say they’re simply standard-bearers for a working-class Israel that more affluent Israelis don’t understand.
“Moshe Hogeg thinks he can come in and tell us how to live our lives, like he knows better than us because he makes more money,” Mati Suleimani, 18, a member of La Familia, said outside the stadium during the team’s home opener in late August against Hapoel Be’er Sheva. “And he is mistaken.”
Inside the packed stadium, as the game was about to begin, the fans took their cue from La Familia, singing a eardrum-shattering rendition of the Israeli national anthem, before eventually turning to their signature “War” chant and a storm of unprintable prostitution-related epithets directed at the opponents.
La Familia sets the tone for a proudly right-wing team that was founded in 1936, more than a decade before the state of Israel. The team was part of Zeev Jabotinsky’s Beitar movement — the “Revisionist Zionist” philosophy combining the idea of a Jewish homeland with nationalist politics — and rivaled the Zionist movement headed by Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.
Throughout its history, Beitar Jerusalem has remained closely associated with Revisionist Zionism, which later gave birth to Menachem Begin’s Likud movement. Recent fans have included Netanyahu himself and Avigdor Liberman, a hawkish former defense minister.
Beitar draws heavily from a segment of Israelis who feel increasingly left behind.
The Israeli economy has been strong in recent years, driven by a tech boom. Companies like Waze, Mobileye and Hogeg’s blockchain firm Sirin Labs and social platform Mobli have turned Israel into a “start-up nation” with the most new ventures per capita in the world.
That boom, however, has largely involved and benefited educated Israelis, typically in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. Israel still fares poorly in income equality, ranking 27th out of 37 countries in the developed world measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2018.
“Only about 9 percent of Israelis work in the tech industry, but that 9 percent generates a lot of the wealth,” said Noga Dagan-Buzaglo, executive director of the Adva Center, a Tel Aviv-based think tank that studies social issues. “That is making the country more divided. I think what you’re seeing with Beitar is the result of those divisions.”
Although the class gap is relatively modern, Beitar has long provided a refuge for the disenfranchised, often Jews of North African and Middle Eastern background, said Yair Galily, who runs the Sport, Media and Society Research Lab at the country’s Sammy Ofer School of Communications.
“It’s the team of the poor and misfortunate who came to the country 70 and 80 years ago,” he said. “The fans today hold on to that image psychologically.”
For Hogeg, it’s time for a change. After sending threatening letters to seven fans and suing two for damages, he said he revoked all their season tickets and barred La Familia from selling its merchandise inside the stadium.
“It’s a struggle,” he admitted in an interview. “But it’s just too important not to fight.”
Hogeg, 38, takes issue with his portrayal as a highhanded mogul. He said he comes from a working-class family, and his father was a government employee. Ten years ago, Hogeg said, he didn’t have any money.
“I’m not trying to be La Familia’s father,” he continued. “But that doesn’t mean I need to support them.” He noted that team sponsors that had abandoned the team because of its reputation have slowly begun to return.
Hogeg added that he was not trying to change the political character of the team. “You can be right-wing and Likud. That doesn’t mean you have to be racist,” he said.
But Beitar remains the only team in the top Israeli division never to sign an Arab Muslim player.
Perhaps to force the issue, Hogeg in June signed Mohamed, a 23-year-old midfielder from Niger. His signing prompted an initial retort on La Familia’s 38,000-follower Facebook page that the group would “change” Mohamed’s Muslim-sounding name. The posting did not explain how that would be done.
At the stadium, many fans said they didn’t care about Mohamed’s name, while others said they approved of the signing only after they realized it could bring victories.
“The name did bother me, to be honest,” said Yitzhak Levy, 38, who works at a car dealership. “But when you see a player who is this good, you have to accept it.”
Some fans said they’d accept an Arab Muslim on the team, but only under certain circumstances. “I would want it only if it was done for football reasons, not to stir things up,” said Aviv Bentolila, 21, who works as a livery driver, standing among many clad in the team’s yellow-and-black colors outside the 30,000-seat Teddy Stadium, ironically named for Jerusalem’s former socialist mayor Teddy Kollek.
Only a few fans said they would be unequivocally fine with an Arab Muslim.
But nearly all fans agreed on this: They were glad to see Hogeg spending money on players and are hopeful he can return the team to its championship perch. It hasn’t won a title since 2008.
And every fan interviewed also agreed on their support for right-wing politicians. “Beitar is Likud, and Likud is Beitar,” said Amram Temstat, 56, who works in special education.
The dominant role of ideology at Beitar has made the team an anomaly in international soccer.
“Beitar is really the last political club in Israel, and one of the last anywhere in the European system it’s modeled after,” Galily said. “It’s the last place where soccer is not completely a commodity — where the fans believe the club belongs to them and the owner is just a guest. The question is whether Hogeg can change that.”
It remains unclear who will prevail in the stare-down between owner and fans. How far will Hogeg go to rid Beitar of racism? And if he does succeed in changing the culture, will La Familia abandon the team?
Soccer experts remain skeptical about the owner’s prospects.
“I’d like to say this will have a racism-free ending, but I think it’s more likely La Familia wins and Hogeg leaves defeated,” said Gal Karpel, manager of the progressive New Israel Fund’s Kick Racism Out of Israeli Football initiative. Karpel did note the group found no explicitly anti-Arab chants at the stadium last year after counting 35 instances in 2016-2017.
At least for the time being, Hogeg is trying to send a new message. He’s had a new slogan, drawn from the Bible, embroidered onto home and away uniforms as well as other merchandise: “Love your neighbor like yourself.”