Anti-Arab league

  An attempt to measure racism in the politically charged world of Israeli football appears to be back-firing, reports Shaul Adar

With Maccabi Haifa on their way to a third consecutive championship, the Israeli league isn’t the most exciting, bar daily news about Russian oligarchs pumping in money. But every Monday another Israeli football league is a source of drama and shocks. Every week, 50 observers from New Israel Fund, an über-liberal institution for promoting democratic values, go to the premier league grounds and file reports on racist chanting. All those chants are calculated by a complicated mathematical equation based on the severity of the events, their length and the number of fans taking part; they end up negative points published in a league table.

Anti-Arab chants are the most common. In the stands of Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem the fans of Beitar, the club associated with the right-wing Likud party, can be heard singing songs about the prophet Mohamed that can’t be quoted without the risk of causing another international crisis, and songs championing Yigal Amir, murderer of dovish Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Last season, a newly signed Nigerian Moslem, Ibrahim Nadalla, was given hell by Beitar fans and quickly left Jerusalem.

The Beitar fans are the most politicised and follow the team in relatively big numbers, but almost every ground is subjected to fans glorifying Dr Baruch Goldstein (a Jewish terrorist who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron), monkey chants at black players and the cries of “terrorist” towards Israeli-Arab players, even if they are part of Israel’s national team.

Ten years ago those kinds of abuse were rather rare and silenced by the majority of fans themselves. But the second intifada (the Palestinian uprising that started in September 2000) brought nationalistic animosity to the surface and brutalised Israeli society. Another factor was the forming of fan clubs, Italian ultrà style, with the aid of the internet, which made the grouping of the radical elements in the crowd much easier. The success of Bnei Sakhnin, an Arab club now in their third season in the top flight, made them an easy target and every game against Beitar in particular has potential for a mass riot. The Sakhnin fans also featured high on the racism index, with their own anti-Jewish chants and violent acts.

Only one team’s fans avoid the nationalistic chants. Hapoel Tel Aviv were formed by the main trade union body and their fans still boast a socialist image (although the team is owned by a Russia-born oligarch). Instead, their preferred field is the Holocaust and pet hates are Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar fans. “May a Holocaust come upon Maccabi” is their song of choice.

The racism index is regarded as no more than a pathetic joke by racists and many liberals alike. It’s not clear what constitutes racism and chants such as “make us coffee” towards Sakhnin fans, or songs about unemployment directed at fans from poor regions, are also taken into account as well as any attempt at wit or harmless hostility. For the ultràs, making the top of the index is a badge of honour – every week fans’ websites call for greater effort. Others are raising topics that can only be found in Israel, such as justifying anti-Arab racism by claiming it is a response to Arab fans chanting Allahu akbar (God is great).

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month