Arsonists torched the offices of Beitar, the Jerusalem club whose recent signing of two Chechen Muslims has provoked an uproar
The blackened remnants of prized football trophies stood on a shelf in the torched office. On the desk a jar of sweets, still wrapped in gold foil, had melted into a sticky clump. Charred team photographs were scattered over the floor amid singed football shirts.
Memorabilia from Beitar Jerusalem football club's 77-year history had been housed in the office. "It's all gone, all our history is gone," said one of the staff sweeping scorched detritus into plastic sacks, pausing to draw on a cigarette and shaking his head in dismay.
A blaze at 5am on Friday at Beitar's premises was probably ignited by burning material pushed through a high window facing outside the grounds. Police said evidence suggested it had been a deliberate arson attack. "We're looking into possible connections with recent decisions by the management," said spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
He was referring to the signing last month of two Chechen players, a move that has plunged Beitar into a national and international furore and triggered widespread calls to rein in the virulent racism of a hard core of fans. The problem for these Beitar supporters is not that the new players are Chechens; it is that they are Muslim.
Beitar, the only Israeli club to have never signed a player from the 20% of the country's population that is Arab, has a long history of racism among its supporters, with a favourite chant being "Death to Arabs". Before the arrival of Gabriel Kadiev and Zaur Sadayev, fans held aloft a banner at a match reading: "Beitar forever pure."
Since joining the club, the two players have been verbally abused and spat at. They have been forced to travel to and from training under police and private security guard protection. A Beitar supporter – one of four later arrested and charged – turned up at the training ground wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Mohammed is 100% dead".
Beitar's owner, Arcadia Gaydamak, refused to bow to the fans' pressure. "As far as I'm concerned, there is no difference between a Jewish player and a Muslim player," he said. His stance, however, was weakened by coach Eli Cohen who drew a distinction between European and Arab Muslims, saying: "The fans here have a problem with Arabs living in the Middle East."
Condemnation of the hardcore fans' behaviour has been swift and harsh. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Friday's apparent arson attack was "shameful", adding: "The Jewish people, [who have] suffered boycotts and persecution, should be a light unto other nations."
Beitar's manager, Itzhik Kornfein, told Israel Radio on Friday: "This has gone beyond sports and this has ramifications for Israeli society and for how we look to the world."
Earlier, President Shimon Peres said the entire country was shocked, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, a Beitar fan for more than 40 years, said that he would no longer attend matches because of fans' behaviour. "Ultimately, this is a matter that concerns all of us. Either we remove this group of racists from our field and cut it off from the team, or we are all like them. Until that happens, I will not go to games," he wrote.
Israel's attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, said police would take action against any "manifestation of [racism] that crosses the line into a criminal act". The Israeli Football Association imposed a 50,000 shekels (£8,595) fine on the club for the racist slogans of its fans and ordered the closure of the eastern stand of its stadium, where hardcore fans congregate, for five matches. Some commentators have decried these punitive actions as inadequate.
Now attention is focused on Beitar's match this evening against Bnei Sakhnin, the only top division team from an Israeli-Arab town and regarded with sporting pride by Israel's Arab minority. There is a history of animosity towards Bnei Sakhnin among Beitar fans; its players are regularly taunted as "terrorists".
Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli-Arab member of parliament, said he would attend the match under police guard. "Every time I go to a Beitar match, they shout at me 'Ahmed Tibi is a terrorist' and other offensive things." He described Beitar as "the most racist club in the world. No other club bans players on ethnic grounds." Bnei Sakhnin, he said, promoted coexistence in sport, with a handful of Jewish players. "Jews and Arabs are playing together. It is the total opposite of Beitar."
Amid heightened tension, Jerusalem police say there will be a heavy security presence before, during and after the match, including undercover units, mounted police and crowd-control specialists. They will be particularly anxious to avoid a repeat of a violent rampage last March by several hundred Beitar fans at a shopping mall close to the city's Teddy stadium, in which Palestinian staff and customers were abused and assaulted. No one was arrested.
That was blamed on a nucleus of extremist Beitar fans, known as La Familia. The group, created in 2005, routinely make monkey noises at black players and chant anti-Islamic and anti-Arab slogans at games. They reportedly booed during a minute of silence for the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and have been accused of assaulting Palestinian maintenance staff at the club's grounds. They have also verbally abused Kornfein, Beitar's manager, for speaking out against racism in football.
A day or so before the Chechen players' arrival, one of their number told an Israeli paper: "I'm a racist. I hate Arabs … If they bring in Muslims, the fans will burn down the club. That can't happen. Arabs and Beitar Jerusalem don't mix."
At Beitar's grounds, hours after the office was torched, club supporter Yaniv Pesso, 43, denounced La Familia. "They are stupid. They are a very small number, like a little mafia, but they have a big voice." Sport, politics and religion should not be mixed up, he said. "I don't like Muslims, but sport is sport."
Beitar, however, is not just about sport. In Israel, football clubs have always been associated with political parties or movements, and Beitar's alignment is with the nationalist right. Its name is shared with a Zionist youth movement linked in the 1940s to Herut, a rightwing party founded by Menachem Begin, which later merged into today's ruling Likud party, led by Netanyahu.
Its fans are predominantly Mizrahi Jews, who came to Israel from other countries in the Middle East and north Africa, and who have always felt excluded from and shunned by the Ashkenazi – or eastern European – elite. Mizrahi Jews make up about 40% of Israel's 8 million population.
In contrast to Beitar, for example, Hapoel Tel Aviv, a club based in Israel's most liberal city, is still associated with the historic workers' movement and today's political left – and Ashkenazi Jews.
In the mid-1970s, Beitar won its first national championship and Likud became Israel's ruling party for the first time, with Begin becoming prime minister. Rightwing nationalism, both on the terraces and in parliament, was ascendant.
According to Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli parliament, the club should be viewed from three perspectives. "The small picture is that every football club has a group of very extreme fans who are fanatical about the spirit of the club. The spirit of Beitar is interpreted by this group as ethnic, religious, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic.
"The mid-sized picture is that of Jerusalem. These days it is a narrow-minded, limited, self-confined city, where the two communities [Jewish and Arab] are separated.
"The big picture means asking if this is a symbol of a larger problem in Israel. The answer is definitely yes. It's a combination of racism and xenophobia, but a racism that is connected to religious extremism."
But Tamar Herman of the Israeli Democracy Institute said the racism of Beitar's fans was not representative or typical of Israeli society. "Football clubs develop a certain subculture that does not necessarily reflect the entire society around them," she said.
Anti-Arab feeling in Israel, she added, was different from European Islamophobia. "It's based on a conflict of interests. It's not because they are Arab or Muslim, but because of a constant struggle over ownership of the land. In Europe, Islamophobia is not based on a political, historical and military conflict."
Back at Beitar's grounds, where the club's junior team was practising penalty shots in the afternoon sun, manager Barbara Barashi said she was ashamed by the apparent arson attack. "I don't want people to think we're all like that. I teach the boys that everyone is equal."