Israeli Soccer Team, Infamous for Anti-Arab Fans, Has New Co-Owner: a Sheikh


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Israeli Soccer Team, Infamous for Anti-Arab Fans, Has New Co-Owner: a Sheikh

The barrier-shattering deal puts an Emirati royal at the helm of Beitar Jerusalem, the only Israeli team that has never fielded an Arab player and whose most extreme fans chant racist slurs.

Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

By David M. Halbfinger and

  • Dec. 7, 2020Updated 9:32 p.m. ET

JERUSALEM — A top-tier Israeli soccer team with a notoriously racist, Arab-hating fan base has sold a 50 percent ownership stake to a member of one of the royal families of the United Arab Emirates.

The barrier-shattering deal is among the first fruits of Israel’s nearly three-month-old normalization agreement with the Emirates and carries outsize symbolic importance: It puts a Muslim sheikh at the helm of Beitar Jerusalem, the only Israeli team that has never fielded an Arab player — and whose most extremist fans routinely chant virulent slurs like “Death to Arabs.”

The new co-owners, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, 50, and Moshe Hogeg, 39, an Israeli cryptocurrency executive who acquired the team in 2018, said in a telephone interview Monday night that their union was motivated in large part by the goal of combating exactly that sort of hatred.

“Our message is that we are all equal,” Mr. Hogeg said. “We want to show to young kids that we are all equal and that we can work and do beautiful things together. The message is more powerful than the football.”

Sheikh Hamad, a first cousin of the de facto Emirati ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, suggested Beitar could soon have an Arab member on its squad.

“The door’s open to anyone, for any talented player, no matter where he is from or what his religion is,” he said. “It should be based on merit.”

He said he opposed building walls between people. “We should teach them that we are taking a positive step towards peace and harmony,” he said.

Credit…Beitar Jerusalem/via Reuters

Already, several prominent Arab players have expressed a willingness to break the Beitar barrier, said Uri Levy, a soccer writer who runs the Israeli fan site BabaGol. (An Arab midfielder on the Israeli national soccer team, Diaa Sabia, was signed in September to the Al Nasr team in Dubai.)

Israeli liberals skeptical about the country’s normalization deals nonetheless found reason to cheer the conspicuous twist of the new alliance.

“The sale of Beitar to the Arabs is the clearest sign that God exists,” Noa Landau, the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, wrote on Twitter.

Many Arab commentators jeered, however.

Saied Hasnen, a sports radio host, called the deal “shameful.” He said that he opposed any Arab normalization of Israel, but particularly lamented the sheikh’s decision to go into business with Beitar, calling the team and its supporters “a sinful and dirty swamp of racists who hate Arabs — the worst people in society.”

Khalid Dokhi, the director-general of Bnei Sakhnin, Israel’s most successful Arab club, expressed mixed feelings. “If it leads to a change in the racist culture, that would be beneficial,” said Mr. Dokhi, whose team plays in an Arab city. “But if it doesn’t, it’s a waste of money.”

Sheikh Hamad’s investment appears to be to a giant leap forward in what has been a long and often tempestuous struggle by several team owners to tame Beitar Jerusalem’s ultra-right-wing fan base.

While other clubs have long fielded Jewish and Arab players, who regularly play together for the Israeli national soccer team, Beitar’s far-right supporters’ group, La Familia, agitated against such a move, sometimes violently. The club has regularly been fined and handed stadium bans for violent behavior as well as racist chants.

A Nigerian Muslim who joined the team in 2004 was regularly harassed and quit after less than a year. In 2005, La Familia protested over reports that Beitar might sign Abbas Suan, an Israeli-Arab who starred for Bnei Sakhnin. When he scored a vital goal for Israel in a World Cup qualification match against Ireland, Beitar supporters held up a banner saying, “Abbas Suan, you do not represent us.”

Another attempt was made in 2013 when two Muslim players, this time from Chechnya, were signed. Again there was violent opposition, captured searingly in the documentary “Forever Pure.”

When one of the Chechens, striker Zaur Sadayev, scored his first goal for the club to secure a 1-1 tie with rival Maccabi Netanya, hundreds of Beitar fans chose to leave the stadium in disgust rather than celebrate. The Chechen players lasted only a handful of games.

Mr. Levy, the soccer writer, said the film was a turning point. “It opened the eyes of many Beitar fans about the need to grow up and let go of this vicious, evil and ancient stance that has no place anywhere in the world anymore,” he said.

Maya Zinshtein, the film’s director, said it held up a mirror up to what she called Beitar’s “silent majority” — passionate but less extreme fans who she said were repulsed by the film’s depiction of La Familia’s overt racism and how it was sullying Israel’s image.

Ms. Zinshtein said a change could be seen last year after Beitar signed Ali Mohamed, a Nigerien Christian of Muslim lineage, who was eventually accepted. “You need to start from somewhere,” she said.

Moshe Zimmerman, a retired professor of sports history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Beitar’s right-wing fans were confronting a double conundrum in the sale to Sheikh Hamad, “because the one to blame is the man Beitar admires most” — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who struck the normalization deal with the Emiratis.

But Mr. Zimmerman predicted that hard-core Beitar fans would find a way to make peace with their new co-owner. “They could say the Emiratis are the good Arabs and the others are the bad Arabs,” he said.

Sheikh Hamad said he planned to invest about $92 million into the club over the next decade.

In the interview, Mr. Hogeg said he had been drawn by the challenge of turning around Beitar’s reputation. “I thought it should be a great thing to do — to fix this and show the other side,” he said.

Mr. Hogeg said he had taken the trouble of obtaining the blessing of a leading Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbi before going ahead with the deal.

Sheikh Hamad, asked how the deal had come together, responded simply: “God connected us.”

However divinely ordained, the pairing was of special significance to Mr. Hogeg, who said that as the son of a Tunisian-born father and Moroccan-born mother, he identified with Beitar’s heavily Mizrahi fan base, Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East — and, he said, with what he called “our brothers” in today’s Arab world.

“I see myself as an Arab Jew,” he said. “And for me, when I look at Beitar’s legacy, look at what they’re screaming all the time: ‘Yalla Beitar!’ What is ‘yalla’? It’s Arabic. They don’t say, ‘Go.’ They don’t say, ‘Kadima’” — Hebrew for “let’s go” — “They say, ‘Yalla.’ This is the most symbolic thing for me.”

James Montague contributed reporting from Istanbul.


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