The torching of Beitar Jerusalem’s offices by fans angry at the signing of two Muslim players has sparked a major outcry which both supporters and ex-players hope could end decades of open racism at the club.
Friday morning’s arson attack, which caused heavy damage to a room used as the club’s museum, came just hours after prosecutors filed charges against four fans accused of racist chants aimed at the two new players from Chechnya.
Along with trophies, pictures and other memorabilia, a pair of boots and a jersey worn by former Beitar and Israel star Eli Ohana went up in smoke.
But for Ohana it will be a small price to pay if it ends up spelling an end to years of xenophobia.
“If it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and fixes the problem, then they can burn another two rooms,” he told Maariv newspaper. “If this can be wiped out, it will be worth even this price.”
And many of the fans feel the same.
“They burned the past, don’t let them burn our future,” the official supporters’ website wrote in a report on the attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the arson as “shameful.”
“Lately, we have seen displays of extremism that we find unacceptable. These must be uprooted, of course, from the world of sports,” the Israeli leader said on Sunday.
“I am pleased that the prime minister for the first time referred to this issue,” said Ohana, who retired from the pitch in 1998. “It is a sign that the issue has reached the highest levels.”
Former Beitar and Israel midfielder Danny Neuman said the trouble was caused by a hardcore of around 500 to 1,000 fans who belong to a supporters group called “La Familia” which makes up about 10 percent of the regular crowd.
“We need to vomit these people out of our midst,” he told public radio.
The latest trouble began on January 26 when the club’s owner, Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkady Gaydamak, announced the acquisition of the two Chechen players: Zaur Sadaev and Dzhabrail Kadaev.
The announcement prompted a hardcore of fans to chant anti-Arab slogans while waving signs reading “Beitar — pure forever” during a game later that day.
Israeli law forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion, and Beitar is the only team in the premier league never to have hired an Arab player in its 77-year history.
The club was founded in 1936, in what was then British-ruled Palestine, by a rightwing Revisionist Zionist youth movement called Beitar.
In the early days, many of its players belonged to the Irgun, the hardline Zionist militia that fought the British until Israel’s creation in 1948, the supporters’ website says.
Over the decades, the team has won support from fans on the far-right fringe of Israeli society.
When Gaydamak bought Beitar in 2005, he tried to change the culture and bring in Arab Israeli midfielder Abbas Suan, former captain of the Arab side Bnei Sakhnin and a member of the Israel national squad.
His bid crashed in flames, with fans reportedly chanting “War! War!” from the terraces at Teddy stadium, the club’s Jerusalem home.
In Israel, the offence of “incitement to racism” potentially carries a jail term, but so far courts have not hit them with the full force of the law, only slapping offenders with a fine or excluding them from matches.
But police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that is about to change.
“We’re now in the second stage of ongoing investigations, finding and tracking down those that are leading the incitement to racism, using such means as are necessary to make arrests, including before incidents occur,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.
On Sunday night, police flooded Teddy stadium with hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes officers as Beitar faced off with Bnei Sakhnin.
Although 45 fans of both sides were kicked out of the stadium, there were no serious incidents.
“The burning of the club headquarters and all the racist chants of the past two months — all that has led people to wake up at last,” Neuman remarked.
“Better late than never.”