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If You are Racists, You Lose!Adam Keller Special to Salem-News.com
Identities and politics in Israeli football...
(TEL AVIV) - Forward: Adam Keller spoke with Tom Wiener, a 20-year old football fan from Jaffa, who is currently in his second year of civilian service at a pharmacy as an alternative to military service. Adam's questions are italicized
Once, in an era that I don't remember but I've heard about, there was in Israel an absolute correlation between football and political/party identity. The party that you voted for in the Knesset elections also determined the team that you supported. People who voted for Mapai and later Labor, would support Hapoel in sports, while people who voted for Herut, which became the Likud, would automatically support Beitar. Other options were unthinkable.
But the situation has changed. Football has undergone privatization. The teams, especially in the premier league, are owned by private capitalists, they are not controlled by the Hapoel or Beitar centers. And politics have undergone a change, the parties are no longer such strong and binding frameworks like in the 50's. Now everything is open, almost anyone from any social class can support any team, with very few exceptions. I suppose that even today, a person from a die-hard Kahanist family with racism flowing in their veins would never be a fan of Hapoel and vice versa, a family with a very deep leftist tradition wouldn't support Beitar. But those are the exceptions. For most people it's open, they might support anyone.
That doesn't mean that there are no political identities and political positions in Israeli football today. There certainly are. But to understand what is happening in that area you need to examine each team separately, its traditions, its audience, who are the fans that come to the stadiums every week, what are the friendly or rival relations with other teams. It isn't enough to see whether the team is Hapoel, Maccabi or Beitar, although those definitions still have some effect.
It is a well-known and famous fact, that Beitar Jerusalem is a very right-wing team, even people with little interest in football know that. It is less known that Hapoel Tel-Aviv, for example, is a team with a clear left-wing orientation. Other teams are located in various shades of the political spectrum, or have no clear political profile at all.
The crucial distinction in Israeli football today is, that there are the four major teams which have fans all over the country, and they are Hapoel Tel-Aviv, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Maccabi Haifa (my team) and Beitar Jerusalem. Among those four there are very clear political distinctions, each of them has a profile that is significantly different from the others. And there are smaller teams, local teams that have fans mainly in their own cities. Most of the smaller teams have no clear political identification.
For you personally, why choose Maccabi Haifa? Since you live in Jaffa, that also means a lot of travel outside the city.
That's true. For me, a Maccabi Haifa home game is not near my home, but a trip all the way to Haifa. It's easier for me when they play in Blumfield Stadium. But I'm not the only one, the team has fans all over the country, in the Tel-Aviv area and even further away. Even when Maccabi Haifa play in Beersheba, as many fans will come as when a team from Tel-Aviv plays there, although the distance from Haifa is much greater. Maccabi Haifa also has many fans in the south, in all parts of the country.
How did I come to support Maccabi Haifa? I'm often asked that. At first, it was pretty much a coincidence. I have a non-conformist tendency. When I was in the third or fourth grade, in the environment of my elementary school in Jaffa, there was a basic divide between the majority, Hapoel Tel-Aviv fans, and a minority of Maccabi Tel-Aviv fans. Those are the two local rivals with a very long tradition of bitter struggles. Somehow, I didn't want to be like everyone else. Ultimately, I went towards Maccabi Haifa, but I can hardly remember how it started. Maybe from an article that I read in a newspaper sports column. At the time, there was not a very principled reason for me to choose for Maccabi Haifa. I might have ended up supporting any team in the country, I am very glad it was not Beitar Jerusalem or Maccabi Tel Aviv.
How would you characterize Maccabi Haifa politically?
Officially, Maccabi Haifa is a non-political, a-political team. Its fans include right- and left-wingers, and it explicitly takes pride in not having a uniform political line. What is important to note is that, contrary to other teams, Maccabi Haifa fans who are right-wing don't express their right-wing politics at the matches, they don't sit together as a group and in the course of the matches, they don't yell slogans that express their political views. At most, they express their views in debates that are held on the team fans' online discussion forums, where you can see that there is a very broad political spectrum among the fans, but that has no expression at the stadium.
What is politically significant in the current situation is that Maccabi Haifa is a proclaimed anti-racist team. The fans address players only on the basis of their ability as shown on the field, not according to origin, religion or color. Only according to how they play. That is especially prominent in matches against Beitar Jerusalem, which is an obviously racist team with fans who are absolutely opposed to their team having Arab players or even Moslems who are not Arabs, and they always yell very racist chants against Arab players in the opposing teams. When Beitar is playing against us and its fans voice racist insults against one of our players, we make an effort to chant stronger, to counter them and show the attacked player that we back him all the way.
There was a match at their home stadium in Jerusalem and the winning goal was scored by Mohammad Ghadir, a young and talented player for Maccabi Haifa, so we started to sing "What a goal from Mohammad" specifically to taunt the Beitar fans. What we wanted to convey was something like: "See what you are missing by being racist! Here's a good player, a talented player, if you weren't racists who hate Arabs he could have been in your team, scoring goals for you. But you're racists, so you lose!". Not that in the shouting between rival fans during or after a hot match you have the time and leisure to speak at such length.
Beitar's racism is very deep-seated. Baruch Marzel's Kahanists often come to the matches, sometimes even Marzel himself, and they distribute their pamphlets and publications at Beitar home matches, they feel that it's their home audience. Even the Kahanist colors, yellow and black, are the same colors of Beitar Jerusalem.
Beitar Jerusalem is the only Beitar team in the premier league, so when people say "Beitar" with no addition, they probably mean them. Other Beitar teams play in the lower leagues. I don't know much about them, but my impression is that they are not as manifestly right-wing and racist as the Jerusalem team. Several months ago there was an item in the newspaper titled "The first Arab player in Beitar." That sounded sensational, but reading the article, you see that the team referred to was Beitar Ariel, a team from a settlement on the West Bank which plays in a very minor league. In fact, other than that news item I have never heard of that team and I have no information about it and its fans, I don’t know exactly how their being in the Occupied Territories concretely affects them as a team and its fans. So, I am not quite sure why they chose to showcase their Arab player in the media.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv is certainly more to the right than Maccabi Haifa. Of course, not as right-wing as Beitar Jerusalem, but with a clear right-wing tendency. Not all of its fans are right-wing, they are clearly split, but there is a sizeable group of right-wing fans who express their opinions on the field. For example, they hold signs in support of the IDF and for a Jewish state. They also have racist songs that are aimed against Arab players and even if it's low-key, it says something about them. When there was an Arab player in Maccabi Tel-Aviv, he suffered quite a lot from racist curses by some of the fans who didn't want him in the team.
For us, in Maccabi Haifa, nothing of that sort would be expressed on the field, even if there is a handful who don't want an Arab player, they wouldn't express it openly. There is a pretty big rivalry between Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and the fact that they are both Maccabi teams has no significance. Of course, it isn't just a political rivalry, it is also and foremost a sporting rivalry between two big teams that aim for the top.
The symbol of the Maccabi teams includes a Star of David. As far as I'm concerned, as a Maccabi Haifa fan, the common symbol doesn't make me feel any sense of closeness to Maccabi Tel-Aviv, nor do I feel any identification with the religious and national contexts of the Star of David in general. For me, it is the symbol of Maccabi Haifa, which is my team, period.
The case where you see the very deep polarization, political and sporting, is of course at matches between Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem, which are the two teams with the clearest political identities, the first being the most left-wing and the other the most right-wing. That is expressed, for example, in the songs and chants of the fans against each other. Of course, football fans chant lots of insults at the rival team even if there isn't any political conflict, but between Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem, a lot of the chants have a clear political content of left against right.
At matches between Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Maccabi Tel-Aviv there is also a clear political divide, but in that case, the fundamental rivalry between them is a local rivalry. It is known all over the world, that two teams in the same city are by nature sworn rivals and the derby is a hot game. There is a very heated rivalry between the two Tel-Aviv teams. Really a visceral hatred.
It wouldn't be accurate to say that all of the fans of Hapoel Tel-Aviv are left-wing, but the Hapoel ultras have a very clear and proclaimed tendency towards the left, even the radical left.
What are the ultras?
Basically, the fans of every team are divided into three circles. There are the ultras, the inner circle of the most active and committed fans, who follow the team through fire and flood. Next is the second circle, fans who come to matches but who aren't totally committed, they don't come to every match. And there is the outer circle of people who don't come to matches, or who only come to especially important matches, and who usually just watch matches on TV and read the sports columns. The Maccabi Haifa Ultras are known by the nickname "the Green Apes". Other teams use this term disparagingly, saying things like "We are going to defeat the Apes". But we certainly use this name for ourselves and see nothing insulting in it – on the contrary.
Often there are nicknames for a team which include the team's color, Green in the case of Maccabi Haifa. Often the term "Devils" is used, especially for Hapoel Tel Aviv who are nicknamed "The Red Devils". This is sometimes used also for other teams, for example "The Yellow Devils" or in our case "The Green Devils".
The ultras are not numerous, around several dozen in each team, but their influence is greater than their numbers. When they compose a song, the entire stadium sings it, when they prepare flags and banners, the entire stadium raise them, they lead everyone. They usually have a special area in the stadium where the activity is very intensive.
Being in the ultras means coming to every game and being active for the whole 90 minutes, singing and chanting and drumming, waving flags and scarves, throwing confetti and cheering the team even when the rival team is leading 5:0. That is the ideal that we adopted from European football, here it is not always successfully adhered to, but we try. The ultras also operate a website which has some effect on the identity of the team. Sometimes there is mention of a more formal "organization," but people prefer to say "ultras," because it sounds more militant. In small teams where the general number of fans is small, it would be correct to speak of an organization rather than of "ultras".
Every team has ultras. But not every team's ultras have a clear political identity. If they do, it has a big impact on the identity of the entire team, on all of the fans, even if they don't all share that political identity.
The ultras of Hapoel Tel-Aviv make an effort to link the present-day team and fans with the team's political history. It should be noted that this is certainly not the same today for all Hapoel teams. For example, in the case of Hapoel Beersheba, the fact that the players wear red shirts is a coincidence, they might as well have worn any other color, and the name "Hapoel" is also quite coincidental. Hapoel Beersheba could just as well have been called Maccabi or Beitar and most likely the same fans which it now has as Hapoel would have supported it just the same. The main basis of support is local rather than political – the great majority of the fans are from Beersheba and therefore they support the local team.
In contrast, for Hapoel Tel-Aviv, red is not just a color. Especially the Tel-Aviv Ultras are aware of the fact that it is the color of Socialism and they identify with that and express it in many ways. For example, at matches they hold pictures of Karl Marx and Che Guevara, or they have a huge sign that reads "Workers of the World, Unite!" which is spread along an entire section of the seats.
They also regularly wave red flags with the Hammer and Sickle. In fact, the Hammer and Sickle also appear in the official Hapoel symbol, which remains from the 1920's, but in the Hapoel symbol, a muscular athlete is positioned between the hammer and the sickle. Nowadays, the fans often raise the actual Communist symbol. The emphasis on a Red and Socialist team is important for emphasizing the depth, connecting to the team's origins. That increases team pride and the fans' love for it.
By the way, that is also the role, on the opposite side, of the seven-branched candelabra that is the symbol of Beitar Jerusalem, with the deep nationalism that it expresses. This is not something to which I can relate, but obviously, as far as the Beitar fans are concerned, it plays the same role of connecting to the roots and traditions of the team. That's why they like it.
Another significant aspect is the banner that the Hapoel ultras always hold: "Representing Hapoel – Not Israel". Not everyone likes this banner, but even those who dislike it would not try to pull it down. That banner represents a clear position, that the State of Israel is represented by the national team. Hapoel, even when it plays against a foreign team, only represents itself, Hapoel.
For example, that means that if fans bring Israeli flags to the stadium, others would yell at them "Put down those flags, wave Hapoel flags!" It also means, that when a traditional (local) rival plays against a team from abroad, you don't suspend the rivalry and go to support the rival team just because at that moment, an Israeli team is playing against a foreign team. The rivalry remains and you still don't want the rival to succeed. Maccabi Tel-Aviv countered that banner by making their own banner: "Representing Maccabi and Israel."
The Hapoel ultras also have a banner that reads (in English) "Love Hapoel, Hate Racism." By the way, quite a few banners in English are seen in the stands in Israeli stadiums. In fact, not only in Israel – at matches in many countries in Europe you see banners in English, alongside the local language.
In matches against Beitar Jerusalem, the political debate about the status of the city of Jerusalem often seeps into the chants and singing in the stadium. Once, when Beitar failed to qualify for the European games, opposing fans chanted "Jerusalem isn't in Europe, Jerusalem is in Jordan."
Several months ago on many websites, not only football websites, a song of Hapoel Tel-Aviv fans circulated, called "Put Jerusalem in Jordan", with music of the well-known song "Be happy in Jerusalem". The first verse sounded nice and naughty to leftists, but the second verse had references to gas chambers and was, to say the least, unpleasant. People who saw it immediately decided to distance themselves from it and not touch the song. Do you know anything about that?
The first verse which is political and is directed against Beitar Jerusalem, was written by a known Hapoel fan.
Put Jerusalem in Jordan
Divide it into two (divide it into two)
Put Jerusalem in Jordan – give it to the Palestinians.
Put Jerusalem in Jordan
Give it to the Palestinians (to the Palestinians)
Put Jerusalem in Jordan – in the '67 borders.
Because we don't need Teddy [stadium] or Beitar
Not the Wailing Wall or the Knesset
Everything in that city is useless
Even at weddings, the floor collapses
A second verse was added later, which contains no politics and has references to gas chambers and just curses and insults. (The reference to gas chambers is in fact derived from a Hebrew play on words, since the word "Ta" – meaning cell, chamber or box - can refer both to a gas chamber and to the special honor boxes at a stadium, which Maccabi Tel Aviv supposedly obtained unfairly).
Put Maccabi in the chambers
They obtained chambers in an underhand way
So put Maccabi in the chambers, fill them with gas
Then Shimon Mizrahi and Moni Fanan will die
They'll shower in the chambers
Then Pini Gershon and Federman will die as well
We'll be the champions, we'll get the cup!
Put Jerusalem in Jordan
Avi Nimni is a son of a bitch
Klinger is missing an eye
Put Jerusalem in Jordan
All of Maccabi – Allahu Akbar!
This verse isn't against , by the way, it's aimed at Tel-Aviv, which is the local rival and as I already said, there is profound hatred between the two teams. In any event, that verse caused a huge controversy among the fans. Of course, when there is such a fierce traditional rivalry between two teams, people do yell at each other "Go to Hell!" "Die!" "Burn, burn!" But many fans didn't want to sing that they thought that introducing the Holocaust into the taunts hurled at the opposing fans was way beyond crossing the line.
It should be stressed that also the purely political songs and chants are not necessarily acceptable to all fans of Tel-Aviv. Certainly not all of them are leftists, and the basic element that connects them is their support for the team. You can find people from traditionally right-wing families who are fans. They are very loyal to the team, they wear the red shirt, will do anything to support the team against Jerusalem and they'll also support an Arab player on if there are racist chants against him. But when other fans start singing "Put Jerusalem in Jordan," they won't join in.
Following the events of the flotilla to Gaza, there was a very intensive debate among the Tel-Aviv fans. There were some fans who wanted to go to the left's protest demonstration at the Ministry of Defense while some wanted to take part in the right-wing demo at the Turkish Embassy in support of the Israeli soldiers. That showed very clearly, that the fans of Tel-Aviv are divided politically, while also showing that the percentage of adherents of the left is much higher than that in the general Israeli public.
Several weeks ago, there was a racist demonstration in Bat Yam and a counter-demonstration of the left, young people from the Working and Studying Youth movement sang "If you're not racist, jump/if you're not racist, jump" and they jumped at the word "jump." And later, in the course of a solidarity demo with Bil'in held at the Ministry of Defense which ended with police brutality and arrests, demonstrators sang "If you don't jump, you're a cop. The way that they were singing and jumping made it seem to me like a football fans' song that had been adapted for use in political demonstrations.
Absolutely, that is a very well-known song that is sung at all stadiums. It is always sung about the colors of the rival team. For example, the two greatest rivals of Hapoel Tel-Aviv, Beitar and Maccabi Tel-Aviv, are both yellow teams – Beitar is yellow and black, Maccabi is yellow and blue. So at matches against either of those teams, Hapoel fans will sing "If you don't jump, you're yellow" and they jump in the stands. That goes for all teams, the fans always insert the color of the rival team.
In Israel there are quite a few traditional feuds between teams that sometimes come to violence among fans, at the field or after the match. But it should be remembered that in some countries, things are much worse. For example, in some Eastern European countries, like Russia, Poland or Serbia, violence at matches and among fans is much more common than here.
On the other hand, there are also alliances. Hapoel Tel-Aviv has alliances with several other Hapoel teams, those in Haifa, Petach Tikva and Ramat Gan. Those teams, like in Tel-Aviv, retain the tradition of teams with Socialist symbols. An alliance means that there is no hostility between the fans on both sides. When a match is over they applaud one another and yell "Good for you, you played well" and the losing side aren't bitter and all the fans leave together.
Over the past decade cordial relations developed between Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Sakhnin, though I would not define it as an alliance, on the very clear background of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and how they impact football. From the moment that Sakhnin rose to the premier league and once even took the championship, it has been perceived by Jews and Arabs alike as the representative of the Arab Sector.
That was especially seen in the entirely predictable, recurring violent confrontations between the fans of Sakhnin and of Beitar Jerusalem. The Beitar fans were not happy that an Arab team made it into the premier league at all, and into a situation in which it could play against their team. The minute that happened, they used the opportunity to taunt the Arabs, in a manner that clearly deviated from the issue of football. For example, by such provocative actions as waving the black and yellow Kahane flag at the Sakhnin home stadium.
For several years it was obvious, once again every year, that the match between Beitar and Sakhnin would be a very heated match with a violent confrontation. That was especially true at the middle of the decade, when Beitar was at the peak of its ability and success. A successful team brings a large audience of fans to the stadium and as a result, a successful team with a racist orientation brings many racists to the stadium. The violence with Sakhnin dropped somewhat when later in the decade, Beitar started to fail and lost part of its supporters, while Sakhnin's presence in the premier league has become more routine and less of a surprising novelty.
This phenomenon appears, by the way, not only with regard to Beitar Jerusalem, though it is the most extreme with them. In the case of many other Premier League teams, racist fans curse Sakhnin as a team from the Arab Sector.
This does not happen in matches between Sakhnin and Hapoel Tel-Aviv, where there are no curses or hatred and the atmosphere is much friendlier. Here there is a clear political logic – naturally, there is a proximity between an Arab team that faced blatant expressions of racism and a team with a leftist political orientation in which Arab players have a very significant role.
By the way, Sakhnin fans consider the Hapoel fans as their role models. For example, Sakhnin fans sing many Hebrew songs which are derived from those of the Hapoel Tel-Aviv fans, sometimes they are virtually exact copies. They often sing in Hebrew when their team is up against Jewish teams. They also have songs in Arabic which, as far as I can judge, are their own original compositions.
In matches between Sakhnin and Maccabi Haifa there is certainly no hostility, but also not such cordial relations as they have with Hapoel Tel Aviv. Maccabi Haifa fans essentially regard Sakhnin as they regard any other of the smaller teams, their being Arabs should not make any difference.
In contrast to the above, there is a deep traditional rivalry between Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem, which sometimes leads to violence among the fans, although fans on both sides wave Hammer and Sickle placards. In this case, the background is rivalry in sports, not politics.
Hapoel Jerusalem is a team that has seriously deteriorated over the last few years and the fans, upset with the failed management of the private owner, split and formed a fans' team called Hapoel Katamon. Their goal is to rise in the leagues and ultimately become the official Hapoel Jerusalem team. There is a successful example of that happening in basketball. The Hapoel Tel-Aviv team declined. Fans who organized around the struggle against the Tel-Aviv municipality which demolished their beloved Usishkin Arena founded Hapoel Usishkin. Ultimately, they quickly rose from one league to the next and they managed to achieve the status of the official Hapoel Tel-Aviv team in basketball.
For now, the Hapoel Katamon football team in Jerusalem has not managed to do the same. They exist simultaneously with the Hapoel Jerusalem team, amidst a bitter rivalry. Hapoel Jerusalem fans accuse Katamon of treason and weakening the team.
The advantage of such fans' teams is that they have a large, highly motivated number of supporters who come to the stadiums. In my view, it would be better if such teams made it into the Premier League while teams with only a few supporters would go down to lower leagues. Matches with an empty stadium harm the quality of Israeli football.
It could be said that the struggles of fan teams are a sort of Socialist struggle, an expression of opposition to privatization and to private ownership of teams.
That is true to a certain extent. But the problem is that once a team gets to the premier league, they will need to return to private ownership. To survive in the premier league, in competition with other teams that are owned by multi-millionaires, you need a lot of money.
I want to end with the international aspects. The fans of Hapoel Tel-Aviv are very active partners in an association of football fans, mainly from Europe, called "Anti-Fascist Football" (Antifa) who, in their countries, promote multi-cultural football and oppose expressions of racism at matches (unfortunately, they are usually a minority among the teams in their countries). These include teams such as Virtus Verona in Italy, Standard Liège in Belgium or Omonoia Nicosia in Cyprus – which is a team with a Communist orientation and although the team's color is green, the fans hold pictures of Che Guevara just like the fans of Hapoel Tel-Aviv.
Hapoel Tel-Aviv's closest international connection is with the St. Pauli team in Germany, which is well-known for its anti-fascist and anti-racist position. There are ongoing relations between the teams, routine visits of delegations to one another and sometimes the fans translate and adopt the songs of the other team's fans.
Maccabi Tel Aviv has an alliance with Ajax Amsterdam, a team traditionally identified as Jewish and whose fans regularly wave Israeli flags so as to confront the anti-semitic fans of Feyenoord. That is what drew Maccabi Tel Aviv to them.
Maccabi Haifa used to have an alliance with one of the organizations of the Greek Panathinaikos team, on the basis of both having the green color and both being outspokenly a-political and opposed to the introduction of politics into sports in general and football in particular.
In contrast, Beitar Jerusalem doesn't have many international contacts. The paradox is, that while there is no lack of teams in Europe with a similar profile of manifestly racist hooligan fans, the racism there often veers into anti-semitic channels.
There was a memorable event a few years ago, when the Wisła Kraków team from Poland competed with the Israeli Beitar Jerusalem. The Wisła Kraków fans have prominent anti-semitic tendencies, which are especially expressed at matches against its local rival, Cracovia. Cracovia has a historic Jewish image dating from the 1930's. Also today, while there are hardly any Jews left in Poland, Cracovia retains its Jewish image and its fans deliberately cultivate it. The Cracovia Ultras call themselves "Jude Gang". Conversely, the Wisła Kraków cultivate their anti-semitism and greet the Cracovia players with very blatant racist chants.
Confronting this anti-semitic team was a very embarrassing experience for the Beitar Jerusalem fans. Beitar did manage to win when the Poles arrived in Jerusalem, but in the match at Kraków they suffered a very humiliating 5:0 loss, with the final result that Beitar was expelled from the European Champions' League by an anti-semitic team. For once, the Beitar Jerusalem fans had an opportunity to look into a mirror and see how it feels to have racism directed against themselves. But I'm afraid that they failed to take advantage of that opportunity.
Note: In the above, there is repeated reference to Israeli football teams named for the three historic sports federations of Israel – though in recent decades privatized and privately owned:
"Hapoel" means "The Worker" – a reference to these teams' historic ties to the Histadrut Trade Union federation.
"Maccabi" refers to Yehuda HaMaccabi (Judas Maccabeus) who led a successful Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid Empire in the Second Century B.C. Though he himself greatly loathed athletic games and competitions, which were part of Hellenistic culture, Twentieth Century Zionists closely associated his name with such games and competitions.
"Beitar" was the mountain redoubt of Shimon Bar-Kochva, who led a disastrous failed Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire in the Second Century A.D. This "heroic failure" was frowned upon by the sages of the Talmud, but enthusiastically embraced by modern Zionists, especially by Ze'ev Jabotinsky's Revisionist Zionists with whom the football federation of this name was historically associated.
Naturally, people in general and football fans in particular don’t often think of the literal meaning of football teams' names.
Special thanks to Occupational Magazine; who originally published this story.
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