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On Either Side of the Wall

The most racist club in the world.


Quite a statement to make about a team. Even more so to wear it as a badge of honour for your own.


The most racist club in the world is how La Familia, ultras at Beitar Jerusalem, want their club to be known. A racism visited upon those who live on the other side of a concrete wall. A racism they foster and celebrate.

 


To visit the West Bank is to step into a different world. Israel is modern, wealthy, developed, connected. Palestine is the land beyond the frontier. Streets are flooded with litter. Roads can't handle the traffic, and are often no more than a dirt track. Some of the nicer ones are only open to Israelis. People are busy everywhere; impoverished Arab families doing anything they can to stay occupied, but none of it feels controlled. That invisible net onto which a functioning society is sewn feels absent, because there's no real infrastructure, because there's no real money. It has some famous Banksy work and that's about it.



But there is a wall. Huge concrete slabs line... well not the border exactly. Not the one internationally agreed and recognised, but rather the point where Israel simply chose to put them, miles further in. Watch towers are dotted along it, huge dystopian turrets, inside which

Palestinians next to Bethlehem West Bank Israeli border wall

faceless soldiers or unmanned weapons peer down on the litter-blown, car-packed streets below. It's hard to imagine a life spent living beneath it, looking up at it. The effect it must have on the psychology of a person.


Palestinians are allowed to cross - and do - but it costs them. For a day pass it is around £60; for a month it is somewhere around £800. Imagine taking £800 out of your monthly wage, before you've even accounted for tax, transport and other costs. Now ask yourself whether or not you earn more than a Palestinian farm labourer in Israel, and consider how much they would then have left over to feed their families. They have to do it though, because there's no work at all on their side.


The anger is palpable in almost every conversation you have. They are welcoming, friendly people, but it doesn't take much before they're telling you about the living conditions. On the bus to Bethlehem, I begin a conversation with Omar*, who has overheard my confusion about which stop I'm getting off at and has decided to help me out. But soon he's talking about life here. 'The problem is politicians on both sides, and money. And religion. That's how they do it mate, that's how they grind you down.'


Ali* - who went far out of his way to also help - is more regretful. That morning he had tried to visit the Al Asqa mosque in Jerusalem. According to the border agreed in 1967, it's in Palestinian territory. In reality it's many miles beyond the wall, like all of the supposedly 'divided' city of Jerusalem. A guard had simply refused to let him inside the mosque, based on, well, nothing in particular. Ali had protested, but in that situation he has no power. 'He said, "Go now or I'll shoot you,"' Ali explains. 'He respects a dog more than us.'

 

Jerusalem is a city I've wanted to see for the best part of twenty years. It's a fascinating, conflicting, swirling mind-assault of a place. In theory it's a city divided. The agreed border with the West Bank runs right through it, but the practical reality is Israel just built their wall miles away and took the whole place for themselves.



I'm here to see Beitar take on Hapoel Tel Aviv in what is a fierce derby for both teams, the most racist club in the world Vs a team born of left wing struggle - the word Hapoel literally means 'workers'. And it's not a simple time either. The game is happening against a backdrop of weeks of protest, both here in the capital and in Tel Aviv. The right wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, is trying to do away with the supreme court, this freeing his power of any bothersome legal oversight.


At the same time, there have been increased clashes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Two Israeli settlers were killed, and in response other settlers have been burning Arab houses and properties. Netenyahu has called for calm and for the vigilantism to cease, but not much beyond words has been done. Much of the nation is also protesting against their government's actions in the West Bank, which can be as divisive among Israelis as in the rest of the world.


So with all this going on, there's a football match. Beitar pride themselves on being the only Israeli club never to have signed an Arab player. Ten years ago, in response to the signing of two Chechen Muslims, fans set fire to the club's offices. When the club signed Ali Mohamed, a Christian from Niger, La Familia demand that he change his name, because it sounds 'too Muslim'. This demand was not met, and caused Moshe Hogeg, the club chairman, to threaten to sue his own fans. Even Netenyahu, a Beitar fan himself, has called his fellow supporters 'shameful'.


In many ways, when it comes to Beitar, the wall is the story.



Outside the ground, La Familia hoodies are worn with pride. Many are worn by young teens, desperate to seem to their mates like they're involved, jumping eagerly into the reflected shine of their club's powerful ultras. A sign of status.


It's a thoroughly modern ground, with lights sweeping around the outside, glowing in the night. The security presence is heavy, as always in Israel, but there are plenty of off duty soldiers in fatigues with Beitar scarves draped around their necks.


I walk in and am right in front of the Hapoel fans, who are leaning over the barriers barking angry words at their own players during the warm up. Along the far side of the pitch, La Familia are already in place, their stand pretty much full with nearly an hour until kick off.


With 20 minutes until kick off, things start getting organised in the away end. They're attaching drums to the front railings and hundreds of plastic flags are being handed out. Suddenly a fight breaks out. One man has his hand around another's throat as they shout in each others faces, eyes wide with spittle-flecked rage. The stewards stand back off in the hope the fight will burn itself out, until the police – a far more militarised presence than in British grounds - come trooping over to fix it. It won't be the last time they go wading into the away end tonight.



The home ultras are warming up, too. The leaders are at the front of the upper tier, clinging to the railing, their own drums pounding. One capo stands on a platform, one arm thrusting a middle finger towards the Hapoel fans, the other raising one end of his scarf above his head in a lynching gesture.


The lights go out before kick off and a couple of fireworks whistle into the air from the home fans, swirling into the night before raining down in a shower of gold and green sparks. Phones light up around the ground. Very soon, it's time.


As soon as the game kicks off, the Hapoel ultras play their hand. From behind the wall of a huge banner across their stand, they light up dozens of flares. Immediately they rain down onto the pitch, sending their own keeper fleeing to safety from his penalty box with his hands over his head. There are only seconds on the clock and the match is paused as soldiers come on and clear them from the pitch. By the time the pyro has gone and the smoke has cleared the clock is showing five minutes.



Again the police barge into the away stand, this time with more purpose. Over the next few minutes, a stream of men are dragged out the front and away to the side door, some fighting, some going calmly. The Beitar fans lean over the wall as they are pulled into the stadium tunnels, barking insults with undisguised hate.



With 14 minutes gone a ball goes deep into the Beitar box. A Hapoel player scuffs a volley but it falls to his team mate who turns it in. The away fans are delirious, and almost immediately turn to swear across the corner of the ground at their rivals.


Hapoel Tel Aviv fans and ultras celebrate goal

A few minutes later, the Beitar striker is tackled clumsily and falls to the pyro-scorched turf in the Hapoel box, but nothing is given. It's not until stoppage time that the home fans get their fun. First there's a red card for Hapoel's El Yam Kancepolsky for a nasty tackle, and then there's a late late corner. The away fans are already screaming with indignation at the amount of extra time allowed, numb to the irony that it has been added because of their flares on the pitch. The corner is headed down into the ground, but Danilo Asprilla springs up, throwing his body back and his legs into the air. From just a few yards he bicycle kicks it powerfully into the net. A momentum shifter; the home fans know it's their game now.


Beitar Jerusalem fans cheer

The second half becomes a story of Beitar dominance and Hapoel time wasting, but chance after chance goes awry. Then, as the clock ticks into the 80s, Hapoel counter. Their striker reaches the edge of the box and pauses for just a moment, wondering what to do. He decides on playing a pass across, only for the defender to block it. But luck is with him tonight. It comes back to him and now a shot is open. He scuffs the ball but it still goes in. With a finger to his lips he peels away to the home fans, a smug smile appearing on his face.


Then Beitar have a corner but Hapoel counter. The stadium is frozen in the moment. Down to ten men away from home, this all seemed so impossible. They score again and the away end explodes. Fans are jumping over the barriers, running around in delirium, scarcely able to believe the luck that's put them 3-1 up.


The ground begins to empty, but it's not so simple. VAR has spotted something. The fans pause in stairwells and aisles. Goal disallowed. Game back on. A nervous few minutes to go.



Until stoppage time. A Hapoel forward collects the ball near the corner. Almost unopposed he brings it across into the box. The defence seems to have given up. He looks up at the goal, only a few yards out. The keeper stares back in horror. The striker winds his leg back and just belts it as hard as he can. It really is 3-1. The away fans have more than they dared dream about. The Hapoel bench empties onto the pitch.



By full time, three quarters of the ground is all but empty. The joyous away fans sing Allez, Allez, Allez as their players and coaches dance in front of them. It's a nice moment, and I can't help but smile with them as all those representing the most racist club in the world slip away into the night.

 

It would be wrong to say all Beitar fans buy into La Familia's ideologies. Many - even most - are good people, just ordinary fans who grew up in Jerusalem and want to spend Sunday night supporting their local team at the football. Plenty were there to have fun. But what happens on the terraces reflects, and even amplifies, what exists in the wider world.


Beitar Jerusalem fans heart gesture

Football isn't something that exists only in isolation. It rallies people around a cause and grants them the anonymity of the group. It can be a channel through which people pour the extremes of their personality, pulling them away from the civilised part of themselves that kisses goodbye to their spouse then drives to work every morning. It can reveal the best and worst in people and reflect thoughts and urges we otherwise might hide.


A very clear line needs to be drawn between the actions of the Israeli state and those of the average Israeli citizen. They are not one and the same, any more than they are in any other country. However, that racism can only fester in the stands at Beitar if it exists somewhere, even as a minority, in Israeli society. It exists because of those few who look at Palestinians and see an enemy, an animal to be crushed.


Yes, it can be hard to judge. Us in the western world don't know how it feels to live surrounded by countries who want your own wiped off the map. Such an existence must foster a mentality that's alien to us. Israel is undoubtedly a victim of something, but it's certainly not of those impoverished Arabs scurrying about beneath the IDF jackboot in the West Bank.


When Beitar celebrate that racism, I will celebrate Beitar losing matches. Tonight was a satisfying night.

* not real names.

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