Having won the Israeli Premier League on six occasions, Beitar Jerusalem are one of Israel’s most successful teams. Their supporters include prominent politicians such as current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
However La Familia (the club’s group of hardcore ‘ultra’ fans) are notorious for their anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. Beitar remain the only Israeli Premier League side to never sign an Arab player with supporters proudly singing on the terraces how they will be “forever pure” and are the “most racist team in Israel”.
In February 2013, the offices of Beitar Jerusalem were set on fire, after the signing of two Muslim Chechen players. Two members of the La Familia supporters group were later charged with arson.
When Moshe Hogeg, a tech millionaire, bought the club in 2018, he quickly confronted the challenge of racism head on:
I have zero tolerance for racism. Absolutely zero. And my reaction to racism is not proportional. You shout one racist comment and I will sue you for a million dollars.
Hogeg was born in Israel and has a Tunisian father, while his mother has Moroccan origins.
His approach seemed to work, with families and sponsors returning to the club, having previously not wanted to be linked to the club’s tarnished reputation. An example of this improvement was in November 2019, when Ali Mohamed (a Christian footballer from Niger), scored his first goal for the club, Hogeg recalls:
This is a huge moment for Beitar Jerusalem that a player by the name of Ali Mohamed scores a goal and all of the crowd cheer his name, it’s a big win.
But the idea that La Familia was on the wane was unrealistic. The earlier signing of two Chechen players was still fresh in the memory and how would La Familia react if Beitar finally signed an Arab player?
Then the unthinkable happened. In December 2020, a few months after Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a deal to normalise relations, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family bought a 50% stake in Beitar from Hogeg.
Subsequently, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, pledged to pump $90 million into the team over the next ten years. Many Beitar fans were pleased with this news and one fan told the Times of Israel “I want it to be known that Beitar Jerusalem is not a racist team. I want this stigma to be taken out”.
Beitar have not won the Israeli league since the 2007-08 season, so fans will hope the influx of money will help break the recent dominance of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Be’er Sheva at the top. But for Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa there are other goals ahead:
We want to set an example to both nations that Jews and Muslims can work together.
He added that he had “heard a lot about the change taking place in the club and was happy to take part in that”. When asked if his investment could be influenced by La Familia, the Sheikh replied, “Challenge accepted”.
After the investment, some of the club’s fans sprayed offensive and racist graffiti on the outer wall of Beitar’s stadium, saying: “Mohammed is Dead”, “Death to Arabs”, and “You can’t buy us!” However, there was also a banner set up outside the stadium praising the Sheikh and welcoming him to Jerusalem.
In response to the offensive graffiti, Beitar Jerusalem tweeted it was “the strongest proof of the necessity of partnership with the Muslims and the Arab world in the war against racism”.
With Beitar currently sitting 12th out of 14 teams, there is clearly significant work still to do, on and off the pitch. Will Beitar Jerusalem become a football club that the Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem can all be proud of, or is the club still rotten at its core? Only time will tell.