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Rivalries in sport often rely on close proximity to stoke anger among opposing fans. Cross-town tensions flare up based on historic differences in location, class or profession. The biggest battle in Israeli football, however, plays out across two cities, with clubs that represent the extremes of the country’s political spectrum.
Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv are two of Israel’s biggest football clubs. Despite hailing from different cities, a fierce rivalry has built up between the two over time. In terms of identity, they could not be more different.
Beitar Jerusalem has a reputation as a club with far-right political sympathies; it remains the only Israeli Premier League (IPL) club never to have had an Israeli Arab player, and when two Chechen Muslims were signed in 2013, fans protested the decision. The club has been condemned for not doing enough to address these issues.
Its rival, Hapoel Tel Aviv, takes a more inclusive approach: players hail from a variety of backgrounds, and little is made of it. Although Hapoel also has a rivalry with city counterparts Maccabi Tel Aviv – a sort of working class-middle class divide – the rivalry between Beitar and Hapoel fans exemplifies the polar extremes of Israeli life far more clearly.
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are roughly an hour’s drive apart. Tel Aviv sits on Israel’s western coastline and is the country’s commercial hub; it’s liberal and metropolitan. Jerusalem, inland and to the east, is the country’s religious centre. The ethnic and political make-up of each city is what sets the two apart, and their football clubs follow suit.
“The average Israeli football fan disagrees with Beitar’s behaviour,” says Israeli journalist Raphael Gellar. “Amid the troubles in Israel, there is plenty of co-existence, but Beitar have built an us-and-them narrative. That said, you do get quite a few people who dislike Beitar on the whole but say something like, ‘It’s good that there is at least one club that doesn’t allow Arabs.’”
While these differences don’t necessarily reflect every part of Israeli life, they play out fiercely within the raucous confines of their football stadiums.
Hapoel Tel Aviv were formed by Ashkenazi Jews, originally from Eastern Europe, as a club for the working class. For nearly 70 years, it was owned by the country’s national trade union centre, and the word ‘Hapoel’ translates as ‘worker’.
They have their own extreme fan group, Ultras Hapoel, who honour the left. They fly flags and banners adorned with Karl Marx and Che Guevara, and the club has a history of association with trade unions and radical Marxist and Communist parties. Those ties have been officially severed, but their badge still incorporates a hammer and sickle.
Like a number of Israeli football clubs, Beitar Jerusalem take their name from the Beitar movement, which began in the 1920s. The Revisionist Zionist youth movement was founded in Latvia by Vladimir Jabotinsky and, through its aim of empowering Jewish youth, was extremely pivotal in fighting against Nazi forces in the lead up to and during the Second World War.
While Beitar is undoubtedly right wing, La Familia – the club’s supporter group – takes this to the absolute extreme. The group has been penalised on numerous occasions for anti-Arab chanting and slogans. “Less than half of Beitar fans will care about having Arab players on the team,” says Gellar. “It’s not a ride-or-die issue for most, but it’s still far more [of an issue] than it should be – it’s very strange.”
La Familia has a strong, historic Mizrahi Jewish (Israeli Jews with Middle Eastern and northern African heritage) identity, and some high-profile right-wing politicians have aligned themselves with the group in the past. Beitar Jerusalem, however, have consistently and publicly condemned their actions. Nevertheless, at home games, members of La Familia take up their usual seats in the east stand of Teddy Stadium.
Tensions between fans often spill over into the streets. “Games are highly policed and ultras [fanatical supporters] are watched very closely,” says Gellar. “Two years ago, a Hapoel fan was hit round the head with a hammer; I think [the fan] is still in a coma now. When a fan dies, people put up banners mocking them.”
In 2016, Beitar Jerusalem were the subject of the documentary Forever Pure. The film follows the club for one season following the signing of two Chechen Muslim players, Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev. Beitar had signed Muslim players before, but the arrival of Sadayev and Kadiyev caused an enormous backlash, with an uproarious La Familia leading the protests (the documentary actually took its title from a poster the group hung in the stadium). When Sadayev scored his first goal for Beitar, hundreds of fans left the ground.
Both players have since been sold. Beitar’s current owner Moshe Hogeg has been very clear in his attempts to change the club’s image and has said publicly that religion will no longer play a part in the side’s transfer policy.
According to Gellar, signing Sadayev and Kadiyev was more a publicity stunt than anything: “It would have been a million times worse if they were Israeli Arabs rather than foreign Muslims – it would be more than walking out of a stadium.”
Together, the two clubs make up half of Israeli football’s ‘big four’, along with Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv. Since the IPL was formed in 1999, the ‘big four’ have dominated proceedings, between them winning 15 of the 19 seasons to date. Only the recent emergence of Hapoel Be’er Sheva, who have won the league for the last three years, has threatened to topple the status quo.
While both clubs are in the IPL, performances on the pitch have waned, and neither battles it out for the title. Beitar’s last IPL title came in 2008, while Hapoel’s was two years later. The Jerusalem club have finished third in the last three seasons, but for Hapoel, things have fallen further. A 14th-place finish in the 2016/17 tournament meant relegation from the IPL, although they were immediately promoted the following season.
Often in football, when winning silverware isn’t possible, it becomes a case of finding other, smaller glories to celebrate, such as beating your bitter rivals – or finding new battles to fight. The rise of numerous Arab football clubs has seen other tensions emerge. For the last three years, Beitar fans were even banned from going to Bnei Sakhnin’s stadium. But could this ever trump Beitar’s rivalry with Hapoel?
“Other derbies have hate, but this is such a deep issue and bad blood will always live on,” says Gellar. “Arabs versus Jews is one thing but, unfortunately, as long as there are Jews in Israel, there will be Jews fighting over who is the best type of Jew. That’s what this rivalry is.”