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Jerusalem-based Beitar is the last Jewish-only team in Israeli soccer, and fans are determined to keep it that way. When word got out this weekend that the controversial team owner had recruited the two players, fans unfurled a banner, “Beitar pure forever” – just as the world was promoting anti-racism efforts on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
While Beitar is an anomaly in Israel, and a small core of virulent fans get outsized attention, the public display of hatred and discrimination illustrates a deep societal divide. Though many Jewish-Arab programs have worked hard to promote coexistence in various segments of society, they are struggling to have a broader impact, especially since the collapse of the peace process and the rise of right-wing parties such as Yisrael Beytenu.
“It’s not having a meaningful impact on the national level,” says veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, who founded a number of Jewish-Arab sports programs, including a semi-professional soccer team. “It can change the life of an individual and make him more open-minded, but it is so small – such a small project and it doesn’t receive enough attention to change the country, to change the region.”
But if Beitar ends up keeping the Chechen players despite their longstanding opposition to having Muslim players on the team, that could actually end up being a catalyst for such change, Liel argues.
“Maybe, maybe, now, if these two Muslim players will play in Beitar with the attention it is getting … and it will work, and in a year they will be part of the team and the thing will be forgotten that they are Muslims.… This can make an impact on the national level,” he says.
Nine years ago, Beitar dismissed a Nigerian player when fans discovered he was a Muslim – just like the Arabs they had long blocked from joining the team.
That spurred Mr. Liel to found the Abu Ghosh-Mevasseret soccer team that was split 50-50 between Jews and Arabs, not only on the playing field but also in the boardroom. The initiative, which grew to include basketball and indoor soccer, has dramatically strengthened ties between two communities on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the well-to-do Jewish suburb of Mevasseret Zion and the nearby Arab town of Abu Ghosh.
It has also cultivated open-minded people like Allah Awad of East Jerusalem, a father of three who, despite increasing Palestinian societal pressure in the past few years not to associate with Israelis, still keeps in touch with his former Jewish teammates. He hopes his 6-year-old son might have the opportunity to play in the Israeli league one day. Throughout Israel it has become more common – and acceptable – for Arab players to join largely Jewish teams, even the national team.
But now Mr. Liel’s cause of coexistence is facing a moment of truth. The Chechen players, Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadaev, were scheduled to fly to Israel on Jan. 30 after a flurry of negotiations in Moscow, where at least one of the players expressed reluctance to follow through due to the fans’ hostility.
“It’s a very interesting test case,” says Liel. “The chance that these guys will play there is close to nil, but whatever happens is very important because if they don’t play there, they have a real problem now… Maybe the owner will leave them…. And if they let them play, and it works, it’s historic.”
Their first practice is scheduled for tomorrow, which will give some indication of whether the fans will accept them on the team, but the real test will be their first game.
Some of Beitar’s most illustrious supporters, including the mayor of Jerusalem, Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have all spoken out against the Beitar fans' racism.
“As we do not want Jews to be abused around the world simply because they are Jews… we must value Muslims and Christians playing on our sports teams,” said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. “This is not just a soccer matter, but an international Jewish issue.”
Such racism is not new; one of the chants most frequently heard from the eastern stands, where the most die-hard fans sit, is "death to the Arabs." And in March 2012, anti-Arab riots after a game in Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium spilled over into the nearby Malha Mall, where hundreds of fans assaulted Arab workers.
After the racist behavior of fans this past weekend, the team was fined 50,000 NIS ($13,400) and a court banned 50 of the most problematic fans from attending an upcoming match.
But the team faces financial troubles and can’t afford to alienate too many fans, or risk a boycott. The enigmatic Russian owner, Arkady Gaydamak, is determined to follow through, but it’s unclear whether he will prevail.
“I’m an extreme right-winger,” says Dan, a high school student at a match last night against the Arab team Umm el-Fahd, who declined to give his last name. “It’s inappropriate to [bring on] Muslims because the entire club is grounded in the Land of Israel – rightist values. I have no problem with Muslims. They can live there and we live here. They just shouldn’t come here to play with us.”
Far away from the din of Beitar’s home stadium in Jerusalem is a modest patch of grass where one of Liel’s team's practices.
It’s nestled on the campus of the Kiryat Yearim Youth Village, a Jewish boarding school for at-risk immigrant youth, most of whom have been kicked out of multiple schools and are as much as seven years behind their actual grade level when they arrive.
Take Nidan Eliezer, who had dropped out of school for more than a year before coming to Kiryat Yearim. He was almost kicked out again here, but soccer was the one thing that enabled him to keep functioning, says educator Naama Katz.
“It gives me more discipline, my days are more organized,” says Nidan, who follows international soccer matches on a TV he shares with 22 other students.
It’s also a cultural exercise in tolerance. Half of his teammates come from the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, where the Jewish school is located.
“It’s not about Jews and Arabs, it’s about getting to know each other. They are human beings, like us,” he says, explaining how the team counters impressions given by the media of all Palestinians or Israeli Arabs as angry young men wearing keffiyehs and wielding stones. “They are just people like us who like to play soccer.”
In an interesting twist, Abu Ghosh’s mayor has been involved in Beitar’s effort to recruit the two Chechen players. Town residents are said to be descended from the northern Caucasus, where Chechnya lies today, so the mayor, Salim Jabber, had traveled there before and agreed to be a kind of liaison.
While Mr. Jabber faced criticism for working with such a nationalist team, he was determined to try, says Liel.
Correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed reporting from Jerusalem.