Beitar Jerusalem fans infamous in the Israeli league for their Meir Kahane inspired hyper-nationalism and racism towards Arabs an Muslims had their world turned upside down in the January transfer window when eccentric billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak (the former owner of Portsmouth) brought in not one but two Chechen Muslim players, Zaur Sadaev and Dzabhrail Kadiev. Thus breaking a proud tradition of being the only Israeli club to never to hire the enemy.
The news was met with anger and protesting fans rioted in shopping malls and hurled racist abuse at the two players during their first training session. However, Gaydamak remained unbowed and his intransigence seems to have really gotten under the skin of the nastiest of the lot, the ultras known as La Familia. The club's office and trophy room was torched in an arson attack a week ago, on the same day four Beitar fans were indicted for chanting "Death To Arabs" and "May Your Village Burn" at a match against Bnei Yehuda, a club long associated with Arab players. The club's caretaker Meir Harush in an interview afterwards talked of the loss:
"They burned the symbol of Beitar, the history of the club. People without a heart. It's infuriating and shocking," reported Channel 1.
Seven fans were taken in by the police and more are arrests are on the way.
The mindless act seems to have repulsed Israel political figures, football authorities, and the saner elements in Beitar's fan base. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, never one to shy away from cynically sticking a shiv in any ME peace accord appeared moved enough to issue a boilerplate:
"Such behavior is shameful. We cannot countenance such racism." He added, "The Jewish people, who suffered from boycotts and ostracism, must be a light unto the nations."
Of course, coincidentally enough, this remorseful condemnation came after Beitar's arson attack and not before when from the stands, this exhibition of ugly racism was in full display. According to reports, the majority of fans who appear moderate reject the most extreme elements and authorities are determined to marginalize them further. The evidence was the 79th minute introduction of Sadiyev, the Chechen player into last week's match against Bnei Sakhnin with Beitar trailing. His debut was greeted by both sides with applause creating a rare moment of unity.
There is also increasing anxiety on the part of Gaydamak, who has tried unsuccessfully to sell the club on numerous occasions and one of the factors cited in that failure is the club's unsavoury reputation. His move to recruit the Chechens might be driven by economic considerations more than tempering the behaviour of the ultras. However, this sounds like a temporary icing because the sort of virulent Meir Kahane extremism that drives La Familia is not going away. If they can resort to arson against the club they profess to love, Gaydamak's revisionism, whether pretended or genuine, is just mere inconvenience. There is also a double standard involved when it comes to Israeli racism as they unlike other associations or clubs have never been sanctioned or fined by UEFA or FIFA. Rifaat Turk, one of the best know Arab Israeli players subjected to racial abuse in every match played for Hapoel Tel Aviv during the 70s and 80s, has every reason to feel pessimistic.