JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Dressed in the black and yellow of Beitar Jerusalem soccer team and holding aloft banners reading “Pure Forever” and “Beitar Good For The Jews”, La Familia is Israel’s most notorious soccer gang, denounced by the club they purport to support.
As the Palestine Football Association (PFA) pushes ahead with a vote at FIFA this Friday calling for Israel to be suspended from world soccer’s governing body, the behavior of some Beitar Jerusalem fans is at the heart of the PFA complaint.
“Racism in Israeli football has become part of the culture,” said Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the PFA, arguing the case for Israel’s suspension from international team and club competitions.
Those on the other side of the argument note that Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population, have played for every team in Israel’s professional soccer league with the exception of Beitar Jerusalem, and to high acclaim for the national squad.
But it is Beitar, and La Familia, that have become synonymous with Palestinian accusations of racism.
While not dismissing the problem, Israel’s soccer association points out that racism is a scourge in soccer in many other countries, from the top flight in England, Spain and Italy to smaller clubs in Russia and Brazil.
But when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, the debate takes on a political hue.
“You see antisemitic behavior around the world at football matches,” said Rotem Kamer, the chief executive of the Israel Football Association (IFA), calling it unfair to single out Israel.
“In the same way other football associations are fighting these phenomena, we are doing it as well.”
Since its founding in 1936, Beitar has never fielded an Arab player. Beitar coach Guy Levy was criticized in Israeli media when he declared he wouldn’t hire an Arab player because “it wasn’t the time”. The fans wouldn’t accept it and it would destabilize the team’s momentum, he said.
Himself a former coach of an Arab team, Bnei Sakhnin, Levy tried to explain that he was just being honest. In doing so, he appeared to expose the depth of the problem at Beitar, a six-time Israeli league champion.
Beitar’s management has denounced La Familia’s behavior and distanced itself from the group. But there are still hundreds of La Familia members present at every game, and the ‘anti-Arab’ banners slip through.
Police have made some arrests for criminal activity, but efforts to stop racist chanting have largely failed. Searches are conducted at turnstiles before games, but as is often the case in Europe, some undesirables still get through.
The IFA deducted two points from Beitar this year because of fans’ racist abuse of an Arab player from an opposing team. IFA head Kamer said this showed the association was getting tough.
But on appeal, one point was reinstated, a decision that on Monday helped Beitar capture a place in European club competitions next season.
That is the sort of action that rankles with the PFA, which has specifically cited Beitar in its complaint to FIFA.
Some Beitar Jerusalem supporters are so weary of La Familia’s behavior that they have quit the club and formed a new low-ranking team, Beitar Nordia, welcoming Arab players.
Friday’s vote may be close, depending on the rules applied. The Palestinians think their proposal to suspend Israel requires a simple majority. If that is so, the vote could go their way.
However, FIFA rules say any suspension vote needs a 75 percent majority. If that holds, it is likely the Palestinian proposal will be defeated.
The PFA’s bid to have Israel suspended from FIFA also cites Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian players, hold ups in the delivery of equipment, and the fact five Israeli league teams are based in settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Israel’s soccer association says it is doing what it can to resolve these problems, but that it is government that is responsible for movement and security issues.
Editing by Ralph Boulton and Janet McBride