How a UAE-Israel Partnership Is Fighting Against Racism in Israeli Soccer

(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

We’re Curious…

Last week, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of the United Arab Emirates’ royal family, purchased half of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, some of whose fans are known for their anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. Beitar is also the only major Israeli club that has never signed an Arab Muslim player.

Moshe Hogeg, an Israeli Jewish entrepreneur who purchased Beitar in 2018, will retain ownership over the other 50% of the team. Beitar hailed the deal — which comes three months after the UAE and Israel signed a historic normalization agreement — as “historic and exciting”:

Beitar’s fan base includes hardcore fans from the far-right group, La Familia. Although the group is small and does not represent the majority of fans, they have grown in number in recent years and have had significant influence over the team’s personnel decisions. The group is infamous for regularly shouting anti-Arab chants during games, such as “pure Beitar” and “death to the Arabs.”

Hogeg and Al Nahyan are determined to fight racism in the stands and move the club in a new direction. “On the eve of Hanukkah, Beitar’s menorah is lit in a new and exciting light,” Hogeg said following the signing of the agreement. “Together, we all march the club to new days of coexistence, achievements and brotherhood for the sake of our club, community and Israeli sports.”

Echoing the sentiment, Al Nahyan said the deal represented “the fruits of peace and brotherhood between the nations” and would further “bring people together through sport.” He added that “the door is open” to signing Arab players, stating, “We are open for all of the talent no matter what their religion is and wherever they come from.”

Reforming the club and its fans will require confronting a fan group that is proud of the fact that the club has never signed an Arab Muslim player. Will the new co-owners be successful in combating hatred and changing the culture of the club? And how are Israelis and the Arab world reacting to the news of the new co-owner?

The History of Beitar Soccer and the La Familia Fan Group

To answer those questions, you need to first understand the history and culture of Beitar. The team was founded in 1936, more than a decade before the state of Israel. As a part of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Zionist youth movement, Beitar, the team was associated with the nationalist politics of Revisionist Zionism. Today, it remains closely aligned with Revisionist Zionism and the political party it gave rise to, the Likud Party. The right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Liberman has said that when Beitar wins, fans are more willing to lend their support to the Likud and right-wing political parties, particularly during elections. In addition to Liberman, politicians who have attended games include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former prime ministers and ex-Likud members Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

The ultranationalist La Familia fan group — dressed in the team’s black and yellow jerseys — has grown in the last decade and a half and often sets the tone at games. In 2013, Beitar signed two Muslim players from Chechnya. When Zaur Sadayev, one of the Muslim players, scored his first goal for Beitar, hundreds of La Familia members left the stadium in protest. In 2015, a video captured the fan group chanting slogans praising former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir. The 2016 film, “Forever Pure,” tells the story of this fan group and their outsize influence on the club.

Hogeg, the Israeli owner, pledged to rid the club of racism after he bought the team in 2018 and has even threatened fans with lawsuits over their misbehavior. Last year, he said his goal wasn’t to change the fans’ political leanings: “You can be right-wing and Likud. That doesn’t mean you have to be racist.”

Beitar and the UAE: A Historic Partnership for Israel and the Region

Beitar’s change in ownership is both historic and ironic. The one major Israeli sports team that has never before had an Arab Muslim player — and whose extremist fans regularly chant anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans — is now co-owned by an Arab sheikh from the Gulf. A racial barrier in Israeli soccer has been broken in the wake of the Abraham Accords. This is significant not just for Israeli sports and the team (which will also benefit financially from Al Nahyan’s investment of millions of dollars); this achievement matters for Israeli society as a whole. 

Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post went so far as to argue that the deal is akin to Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers and becoming the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the 20th century (although he clarified that he was in no way implying that Israel in 2020 is comparable to Jim Crow America).

“To grasp the significance of an Emirati sheikh buying half of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, a team that has never fielded an Arab player, imagine Jackie Robinson not playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but buying the team,” Keinon wrote, noting that Robinson is “perhaps the most historically significant baseball player ever” and changed American attitudes toward race. Will Al Nahyan’s purchase of half of Beitar similarly change the racist attitudes of La Familia fans?

Coming on the heels of the UAE-Israel normalization deal, the partnership also signifies that major changes are happening in the region. Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “It’s instructive that an Emirati has bought Beitar Jerusalem. It tells you how things are changing so rapidly.” Similarly, Hogeg argued that the deal is ushering in a new era of peace, stating, “We want to show the people that after many years of thinking that Jews and Muslims can’t get along, that this is the ultimate start, and that true peace between the peoples can be reached.”

Further supporting this claim, in a statement announcing the deal on Beitar’s website, Al Nahyan even referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This is significant given that the city’s status is a key issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through their creative partnership, Hogeg and Al Nahyan could further Jewish-Arab coexistence both in Israel and the Middle East.

Beitar’s New Emirati Co-Owner: Reactions From Israelis and the Arab World

In Israel, while many have welcomed the deal, others have reacted with distress or protested against the sale.

Beitar fan Yaron Tzidkiahu said: “This will promote normalization. This is amazing. It happens all over the world that football teams get sold to international groups… It can only promote Israeli soccer.”

Noa Landau, the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, said on Twitter: “The sale of Beitar to the Arabs is the clearest sign that God exists.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial board was also in favor of the deal, stating: “We understand that some fans may be upset by a quintessentially Israeli team being sold to a foreign investor, but it is time to put an end to unbridled hatred that shames not only the club but the whole of Israel… From now on, ‘Yalla, Beitar!’ should be a chant associated with sportsmanship and coexistence – and the team should become a proud mascot of the Abraham Accords.”

Other Israelis were unhappy with the move and said the team was selling out its identity. Retired Beitar goalkeeper Dudu Aouate argued on Twitter: “It needs to be taken into account that this is an 84-year-old club with a history and fans who fought for its social makeup over the course of so many years and who preserved its ‘Jewish’ identity more than any other adjective.”

Beitar fan Shmuel Yosef tweeted: “Money, money, money. You’re no longer the authentic Beitar Jerusalem. It’s a sad day for the people for whom Beitar was a soccer team with Jewish character and pride.”

Some La Familia fans protested against the sale. Shortly after the news broke, approximately 100 members of the group stormed the team’s practice, shouting at the players and owner and demanding that the deal be stopped.

Some Arab-Israeli commentators also criticized the deal. Saied Hasnen, a sports radio host, called the sheikh’s decision to invest in Beitar “shameful,” arguing that the team and its fans are “a sinful and dirty swamp of racists who hate Arabs — the worst people in society.”

Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab-Israeli sports journalist and former Knesset member, expressed skepticism that the partnership would change the team’s culture, arguing, “The fact that an Arab has bought half of Beitar Jerusalem lets the group off from its problem of racism against Arabs.”

The Bottom Line

Beitar’s new ownership team has vowed to fight against racism and change the culture of the team and its fans. They are confident that they can overcome years of racism displayed by the La Familia group and move Beitar in a positive direction. In Israel, many have welcomed the deal, noting that it will help the team financially, help combat hatred and promote normalization with the Arab world. Others have criticized the deal and questioned whether Hogeg and Al Nahyan will be successful in achieving their ambitious goals. The deal is significant not only for Beitar and Israeli sports, but also for Israeli society and the Middle East. The new co-owners have found a creative way to combat racism in Israel. Their collaboration is also another sign that change in the region is underway, following historic normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.