An Israeli investigation into the brutal murder of 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir in apparent revenge for the killing of three teenage residents of an Israeli settlement on the West Bank has focused attention on Israel's most militant, racist soccer fan group.
The focus, irrespective of whether the fan group was involved in Mr. Abu Khdeir's death, is likely to end a long-standing refusal by the Israeli government and football association to crack down on rabidly anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim soccer club Beitar Jerusalem FC and its notorious La Familia fan group. The club has long enjoyed the support of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and other prominent right-wing personalities.
Media reports and Israeli blogger Elizabeth Tsurkov said six suspects arrested on Sunday on suspicion of involvement in Mr. Abu Khdeir's murder were either members of La Familia, named in honour of the Italian mafia, or met at an anti-Arab La Familia protest. Police were also reported to be investigating a failed kidnapping earlier this week by La Familia associates of a nine-year old Palestinian boy.
La Familia members last week greeted the Beitar soccer squad before police had found the bodies of Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah, the three teenagers Israel says were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, with chants saying "here they come, Israel's most racist team.
Beitar is the only club to have refused to hire a Palestinian player despite the fact that Palestinians rank among the country's foremost performers. Neither the government nor the Israel Football Association has ever taken the club to task on equal opportunity grounds.
Protesters wearing La Familia shirts also demonstrated at the Gush Etzion settlement near Hebron where the three Israeli teenagers were abducted at a popular hitchhiking point to demand that settlers randomly attack Palestinians in revenge for the kidnapping. The bodies of the three were later found buried near the West Bank city, a hot bed of Palestinian nationalism as well as Islamist groups. Hebron is home to a mosque soccer team that a decade ago produced several suicide bombers.
La Familia briefly sparked national outrage in Israel in January of last year when it unfurled a banner asserting that "Beitar will always remain pure" in protest against the club's hiring of two Muslim players from Chechnya. It was the group's use of language associated with Germany's National Socialism that sparked the rare outrage against its consistent racism. The group's opposition to the Chechens also countered a long-standing pillar of Israeli policy that seeks to forge close ties with its neighbours' neighbours in the absence of relations with a majority of Arab and Muslim states.
The group also torched Beitar Jerusalem's team offices in protest against the hiring of the Chechens. Two Beitar supporters were sentenced to prison as part of a plea bargain in which they pleaded guilty to the torching but did not identify themselves as members of La Familia.
The outcry was in stark contrast to the lack of a national response to past outbursts by La Familia, including an attack on Palestinian shoppers and workers in a Jerusalem mall as well as Jewish musician who denounced their attitudes in 2012 and Beitar's refusal to hire Palestinian striker Mohammed Ghadir who in late 2011 volunteered to join the club in a challenge to its anti-Palestinian policy.
In another rare instance that sparked a public response, Beitar fans shocked Israelis several years ago when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
All in all, 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 -- slaps on the knuckles that have failed to change the attitude of the club and its supporters.
The IFA, despite being the only soccer body in the Middle East to have launched a campaign against racism, has allowed what Israeli soccer scholar Amir Ben-Porat describes as 'permissive territory' in which "some deviant behaviours are tolerated (such as using profanities) as long as definite rules are followed (that is, no racist chants)" to get out of hand.
Similarly, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who cultivates an image as a tolerant public servant, has largely remained silent about the racism of home soccer team despite the fact that, according to Ha'aretz newspaper, approximately one-third of Mr. Barkat's constituents are Jerusalem's 280,000 tax-paying Palestinians.
As a result, La Familia operates in an environment in which racism, racial superiority, bigotry, double standards and little sincere effort to address a key issue that undermines Israel' s projection of itself as a democratic state founded on the ashes of discrimination , prejudice and genocide is one predominant story that emerges from the country's soccer pitches.
Writing in Soccer & Society, Mr. Ben-Porat warned several years ago that "the football stadium has become an arena for protest: political, ethnic, nationalism, etc... 'Death to the Arabs' has thus become common chant in football stadiums... Many Israelis consider the Israeli Arabs (Palestinians) to be 'Conditional Strangers,' that is temporary citizens... Contrary to conventional expectations, these fans are not unsophisticated rowdies, but middle-class political-ideological right-wingers, whose rejection of Arab football players on their team is based on a definite conception of Israel as a Jewish (Zionist) state," Mr. Ben-Porat wrote.
Beitar, a reference to the Jews' last standing fortress in the second century Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, was established in 1923 in Latvia as part of the revanchist Zionist. Its founder, former Ukrainian war reporter Ze'ev Jabotinsky, hoped to imbue its members with a military spirit.
The movement's Jerusalem branch founded the sports club in 1936, the year of the first Palestinian uprising.
Beitar Jerusalem initially drew many of its players and fans from Irgun, an extreme nationalist, para-military Jewish underground that waged a violent campaign against the pre-state British mandate authorities. As a result, many of them were exiled to Eritrea in the 1940s. Many of La Familia's members are supporters of Kach, the outlawed violent and racist party that was headed by assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane. La Familia frequently displays Kach's symbols.
Beitar's initial anthem reflected the club's politics, glorifying a "guerrilla army racist and tough, an army that calls itself the supporters of Beitar." That spirit still comes to life when fans of Beitar meets their team's Palestinian rivals. Their support reaches a feverish pitch as they chant racist, anti-Arab songs and denounce the Prophet Mohammed.
Beitar's hard core fans -- Sephardi males of Middle Eastern and North African origin who defined their support as subversive and against the country's Ashkenazi establishment -- revelled in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction, rooted in resentment against social and economic discrimination, rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
The refusal by the IFA and government to stand up to the group's blatant racism reflects the ambiguity of a society that long yearned for peace, increasingly grown frustrated at how beyond grasp it seemed to be, and finally concluded that peace no longer was essential to its survival.
As a result, the failure to confront La Familia has entrenched Palestinian perceptions of an Israeli society that is inherently racist. Israeli Palestinian Member of Parliament Ahmed Tibi has laid the blame for La Familia's excess at the doorstep of Israeli political and sports leaders. "For years, no one really tried to stop them, not the police, not the club, not the attorney-general and not the Israeli Football Association," he said.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title