A Jerusalem football team was in turmoil on Sunday after some fans lashed out at the owner’s plan to sign two Muslim players, insisting the club would remain “pure” and causing uproar during a weekend game.
Israeli media reported on Saturday that Arkady Gaydamak, the Russian-Israeli owner of Beitar Jerusalem, had decided to sign two Chechen footballers from Russian team Terek Grozny.
During a game that day, some fans chanted slogans such as “no Arab will tread here” and waved a huge banner reading “Beitar — pure for ever.”
They also cursed Gaydamak, though reports said some fans tried to shout them down.
Beitar has earned a reputation for a hard core of anti-Arab fans, with many of its supporters insistent that the team should never hire an Arab player, and the club has been punished in the past for the behaviour of its fans.
Last March, 16 Beitar supporters were arrested after they surged into a mall following a football match, screaming “Death to Arabs!”
Israeli media reported that footage of the incident showed the fans spitting on Arab women in the mall and then assaulting Arab men who tried to intervene.
But Gaydamak on Sunday remained steadfast on his decision to bring in the players, reported to be Zaur Sadaev and Dzhabrail Kadaev.
“(It) is very clear that the absolute majority of Beitar supporters and general Israeli population are against the anti-Muslim provocation created by the very small group of supporters,” he told Israeli army radio from Moscow.
He insisted he was “absolutely” going to bring the players to Beitar despite the uproar.
Police arrested three fans for incitement to racism following Saturday’s game, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, adding that they would face a remand hearing later Sunday.
He noted that the disturbances — including anti-Arab and anti-Muslim chants — continued after the game, though there were no physical attacks.
Knesset (parliament) speaker and Beitar fan Reuven Rivlin expressed his dismay.
“Today is International Holocaust Day,” he told army radio. “Imagine what would happen if groups in England or Germany determined that a Jew couldn’t play for them.”
“We support the battle against fascism and racism, and we should lead it,” he said of Israel.
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat said: “We cannot… discriminate against Muslim or Christian players from being in our teams. This is not just about football, but a Jewish and national interest.”
Israeli media reported the two Chechens would be the first Muslims to play for Beitar, but according to the club’s fan website, there were three Muslim players in the past, two in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as Ndala Ibrahim, who lasted in the club for three months in 2005.