Beitar Jerusalem and the UAE-On Sport and Israeli Politics

The Beitar Jerusalem-UAE ownership deal just announced, is already credited as an ”historic”development, and as much as I reserve the use of this word to describe current events, this time I give up, and stream along with other commentators. Yes, it is an ”historic” event, but no, not for the reasons cited by many others.

First though, some comments about me and soccer, and especially me and Beitar Jerusalem FC. Soccer is and has always been my passion, not the only one, but so central to my life. With that comes politics, as sport and politics were so interconnected with each other in Israel of the time when I grew up, the Israel which was under the domination of historic Mapai [any one still remembers?…], the Israel where the Histadrut was a state within a state, and Hapoel was its sport wing. So if Hapoel was the Reds, then me, growing up in Nahalat Jabotinsky had other heroes, and these were the Beitar teams, the sport wing of the Herut party[again… any one remembers?…], and in particular my home team Beitar Binyamina and the bigger sister, Beitar Jerusalem. Let us be honest about that-it was a fairly frustrating matter, as Beitar teams were constantly discriminated against by the Football Association as well as referees on the ground. All this happened, all this was there because sport was politics , and politics was ”them”, not ”us. It all changed in 1976, when Beitar Jerusalem won the Israel Cup for first time, and 25,000 fanatic fans in the old Ramat Gan Stadium were chanting ”Begin lashilton-Menachem Begin to PM…].It was football, and it was politics, and a year later they already chanted ”Begin Bashilton-Begin IS the PM…So much for politics and sport at that time.

For 40 years since then, A lot has changed with regard to this combination of sport and politics, save for one team which is still so associated with its political roots, and this is Beitar Jerusalem with its vast camp of fans, most of whom are not from Jerusalem itself. They come from Dimona and Tiberias, from Ashdod and Afula, mostly from the geographic periphery , and though they are mostly loyal Likudniks, they still feel that they come from the political periphery as well. This is one of the abnormalities of Israeli politics, when a party has been in power for the large part of 40 years, and yet it feels as if it is the anti establishment.

Among the Beitar fans there is a hard core of ultra fanatics, the La Familia group, who are proud to combine their sport sympathy with their politics, and their politics is no more mine. It is racist anti Arab, it is despicable and one which degrades the glorious legacy of the original Beitar movement. Here is a point to be made-Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin would have been ashamed to be the current Beitar Jerusalem fans, because of the fans [not a majority, but too many] who chant the anti Arab and anti Muslim slogans. We , in the Beitar of old, were educated that ”Sham yirve lo meosher , ben Arab , ben Nazareth and my son-the ever relevant words of Jabotinsky-there they will leave happily in joy, the Muslim, the Christian and the Jew, referring to the independent JEWISH state.As for me, well, not a source of pride, but rather a matter of habit, as old habits die hard, the Beitar Menorah is still my menorah, but to be honest, it is not what it used to be, far from it, and with it I turn to today’s sport and politics.

It is my assumption, that the current leaders of Beitar Jerusalem FC do not consider themselves men of history making, and the main reason for their decision to share the ownership of the team with a millionaire member of the ruling family of the UAE is purely financial, but then it is a simple question-so what?, or rather who cares?. We say in Hebrew[this is the English version…], though doing something for its own sake one eventually does it for its own sake. The deed was done, and I , for one, nor applaud, neither criticize, simply accept it, because our leader Jabotinsky taught us , that in the new Jewish state there could be an Arab President and PM, so why not an Arab half owner of a football team?. Hopefully, the fanatics will not be able to derail it, and this is not a possibility to be dismissed, but yes, an ”history” was already made, and it is also true, that there is something else here which is so relevant to Israeli politics, and it goes beyond the sport element of our story here.

I happen to believe that we have here another indication of something which is very much in the forefront of Israeli politics-it is that only or almost always it is only the Right Wing which can do things of tremendous significance connected with the Middle East situation, whereas the Left Wing can talk about them. It is the Right Wing which made the historic peace with Egypt, the peace which was completely based on the formula of Land for Peace, it is the Right Wing which evacuated Jewish settlements in Sinai, Gaza and Samaria. It is the Right Wing which breaks the taboo on cooperating with the joint Arab List, as is the case with Netanyahu and Mansoor Abbas and his RAa’am faction, and it is the Right Wing which makes peace these days, but this time not on the basis of Land for Peace. Arab businessmen showed in the past an interest in buying Hapoel Tel Aviv, but that never happened. A coincidence?, maybe yes, maybe no, I do not know, but I Know that , for example, Elie Ohana, the Beitar legendary player and a self-styled Likud supporter was in Dubai to sign the historic agreement. So, is it all a subtle call by me to my readers [hope there are any…LOL], to vote for Likud or any other Right Wing party in Israel?, no, not at all, but there still are two points to be made which have political significance.

One is, that when viewed against the background of the above, we can safely conclude, that despite the impression of deep ideological differences between Right and Center Left[i do not refer to the anti Zionist Left], the actual positions are such that could enable an agreed national policy on issues connected , for example, with the conflict with the Palestinians[no more the hardly existing Arab-Israeli conflict] and the attitude towards the Arab minority in Israel. The second point is, that IF this policy is not in place, that if the notion of national consensus in Israel seems so out of reach,it is because of domestic issues having to do with cultural differences, which have an impact on politics. It is culture and issues of communal identity which determines Israeli politics, and the Beitar story is yet another indication of it, an important one, and hopefully one which remains in place, so it will deserve the title historic. It is that Right Wing and Arab hatred are NOT the same, and Left Wing and making peace is also more fictional than realistic.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina