Beitar fans unfurl the logo of assassinated extreme right wing Rabbi Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense Laugue
By James M. Dorsey
Troubled Beitar Jerusalem FC, the bad boy of Israeli soccer notorious for the racism and militant nationalism of its supporters, has denounced as “harsh, discriminatory and unsportsmanlike” the rejection by an Israeli Football Association (IFA) tribunal of its appeal against an earlier sentencing to a two-point deduction for behavior of its fans
In a statement, Beitar Jerusalem said that the rejection would not help the club’s management combat violence and racism and accused the IFA of wanting to harm Beitar.
The rejection by a three-judge panel comes as the club known for its right-wing anti-Palestinian politics and close ties to right-wing Israeli political leader is struggling to avoid relegation, seeking to shore up its bad boy image and raise funds with an initial public offering. It also comes at a time that the club is under attack for refusing to hire an Israeli Palestinian player on racial grounds.
The timing of the IFA ruling is also important to the association, which is under scrutiny in a match-fixing scandal. IFA Chairman Avi Luzon was last week the latest of scores of Israeli soccer officials to be questioned by police as part of an on-going match-fixing probe involving fraud, breach of trust and abuse of power. Police are seeking to establish whether referees were assigned to certain matches so as to influence their results.
The IFA judges reaffirmed the point reduction in a 2:1 vote, with one judge, Nadia Halabi, arguing in favor of ordering the club to play matches behind closed doors to persuade its fans to change their behavior instead of penalizing it with a loss of points.
In response to Beitar’s criticism, IFA officials, according to daily newspaper Ha’aretz, said repeated efforts to change the club’s fan behavior by reducing punishments meted out by the association’s disciplinary court had failed to produce results.
Beitar chairman "Itzik Kornfein really should take care of business in the team before he complains about honorable judges, who make independent decisions," one official said.
Beitar was sentenced to the two-point reduction after its fans shouted racist slurs against Nigerian-born international striker Toto Tamez during a match against Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Beitar has the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s Premier League. Since 2005 it has faced more than 20 hearings and has received various punishments, including point deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors because of its fans’ racist behavior.
Beitar’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. It’s mostly Sephardic fans of Middle Eastern and North African origin, revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
Supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revanchist Zionist youth movement. Its founding players actively resisted the pre-state British mandate authorities.
Beitar is Israel’s only leading club never to have signed an Israeli Arab player because of fan pressure. Maccabi striker Mohammed Ghadir recently put Beitar on the spot when he challenged the club to hire him despite its discriminatory hiring policies.
Beitar fans shocked Israelis when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Its racist outbursts have prompted the Israeli Football Association to become the Middle East’s only soccer institution to launch a campaign against racism and discrimination.
A crowned club that last won Israel’s Premier League and cup championships in 2008, Beitar has been struggling since its owner, Russian billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak, stopped living up to his financial obligations. His shares were subsequently impounded following a devastating result in a Jerusalem mayoral election and a series of financial scandals that persuaded him to leave Israel.
Hopes last year that Beitar would solve its financial problems and shed its racist image were dashed when the sale of the club to two American Jewish businessmen, one of whom is associated with Israel’s peace camp, fell through. The businessmen had vowed to change the behavior of Beitar fans.
Beitar has since entered into talks with potential financial underwriters led by Tel Aviv-based Migdal Capital Markets, part of Israel’s largest insurance group, about taking the club public to raise $25 million.
The move to take Beitar public on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange was initiated by Beitar’s general manager and former goalkeeper, Yitzhak Kornfein. Mr. Kornfein believes that the IPO will position Beitar as a profitable business.
Beitar backed out of an earlier attempt in 2000 to go public after then owner and businessman Gad Zeevi concluded that an IPO would not make the club commercially viable.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.