Offside, Behind The Lines

Last night, at Jerusalem’s municipal stadium, Beitar Jerusalem beat Hapoel Tel-Aviv 1-0. I was there. I was not welcome. It was fun.

The team names will mean little to people not acquainted with Israeli soccer or Zionist intellectual history. For Israeli sports teams grew out of the social clubs and youth groups associated with big, pre-state political movements, which were split, at times viciously, along ideological lines. Imagine a showdown between Kulaku Moscow and Proletario St. Petersburg or, for that matter, Evangelist Houston and Newdealer Chicago. These are powerful traditions that the 20,000 Beitar fans were half-consciously carrying into the stadium along with their team scarves and flags—even fans (perhaps, especially fans) under 30, who tend to think of Jabotinsky as an exit and Ben-Gurion as an airport.

HAPOEL (“THE WORKER”) was the cultural wing of mainstream Labor Zionism, the movement that carried the main burden of Zionist colonial settlement between 1905 and 1949. Its people were Eastern European immigrant revolutionaries; they gave us the kibbutzim, Histadrut labor federation and the Haganah defense force; their parties took shape in the 1920s and 30s, dominating a largely socialist economy through the 1950s and 60s. In those days, the Histadrut and state, run by Labor parties, together owned about 70% of the economy. So you got a job in the Haifa port if you had had a cousin who worked in the Histadrut sick fund, whose wife was a second cousin once-removed of the chief copy editor of Davar, the daily that told us what Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party was going to decide about just about everything. Famously, an Israeli WASP in the 1960s was a white, Ashkenazi sabra with protekzia. This was not amusing if you were a new immigrant from North Africa, about which more in a moment.

Beitar, for its part, was the youth movement of the (eventual) Revisionist Zionist movement, founded in Riga in 1923 by the Russian esthete and warrior, Vladimir Jabotinsky. He was, by all accounts, a charismatic writer and activist who steeped himself, among other things, in Italian art and history, and then modeled himself on Garibaldi; he could never quite decide if Mussolini’s fascism was more threat to Jews than inspiration; Beitar was the last stand of the Bar-Kochba revolt against Mussolini’s favorite Romans, ironically, in 135 AD.

Jabotinsky clashed early with the socialist Zionists whose hegemony he detested, fearing that their centralized control of industry and entry permits would discourage the immigration of especially middle class Polish Jews. He hated Marxism, but (sooner than most) also saw that Polish Jews would be annihilated by Hitler. He died in 1940, but his heir, Menachem Begin (whom Jabotinsky also detested), came to Palestine and led the Irgun in the early 1940s, and then led the opposition to Labor’s socialism from the Knesset and in the streets during the 1950s and 60s. This was when most of the North African Jews arrived.

The latter had no more cultural understanding of Begin’s roots than they did of Ben-Gurion’s, but they resonated with Begin’s call for economic freedom, Jewish religiosity, suspicion of the goy (read, Arab), sexual modesty and expansion into “greater” Israel. Begin told them, not altogether demagogically, that a labor aristocracy had got to Israel first and was, in effect, screwing them. They added—not in Begin’s company—Ashkenazi aristocracy.

Today a great many of Jerusalem’s self-defined, hard core “Mizrahim”—not well educated vegetable peddlers, contractors, drivers—vote Shas, a kind of Jewish Hezbollah, a party with Rabbinic vetoes, soup kitchens, and state subsidized orthodox schools. It is threatening to leave Olmert’s coalition if Jerusalem is negotiated. It easily makes common cause with the ultraOrthodox parties and settlers.

WHICH BRINGS ME to last night’s game. Hapoel fans are the people Beitar fans most love to hate. They are allegedly (like Olmert’s friends, if not Olmert himself) the people of North Tel-Aviv, the people with the MBAs and medical patents; with gefilte fish, mutual funds and Mahler. They have, the caricature continues, Audis to visit relatives in the Jezreel Valley and laptops with “high bandwidth”—Arab-loving, Oslo-processing, Boston-visiting, “pretty souls” (yefai nefesh) who buy the villas you are, if you are lucky, doing the plumbing for. Israeli Jews of North African origin earn, on the whole, about half of what people of European origin earn. The former are daunted by globalization, which is passing Jerusalem by. “They are rich, we are poor,” so goes the argument behind the cheering and jeering; “Everybody with money is a ‘mafianer’ taking, or giving the Arabs, what we should have.”

The hatred is real, you see. Konrad Lorenz called it militant enthusiasm. Let’s call it familiar. Hapoel fans have to sit in their own section of Beitar’s stadium (named, as if to rub it in, after Labor’s Teddy Kolleck), separated by fences and a squad of policemen. The team managers are conducting a very public discussion about whether, in addition to a Ghanaian striker and Croatian goal keeper, the team might employ even one Israeli Arab player. Several weeks ago, when the crowd was asked to stand in silence to mark the anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination, the crowd shrieked and whistled. A few weeks before that, people in the front rows were crushed against a fence when fans tried to storm the field. I was told explicitly not to wear anything red, since harassment of interlopers is no joke (luckily, my ski jacket is gold).

A good time was had by all last night, but what I saw has serious political implications. Jerusalem is not just the most sensitive “core issue” to be settled with the Palestinians, it is home to these Jews: a hotbed not only of orthodoxy, but also of poor angry gangs who think the peace makers are just new versions of condescending insiders who are not to be trusted. If Israel tried to withdraw from settlements around Jerusalem, a great many of these fans could be instantly mobilized, the way a subset were at the time of the evacuation of Gaza. Then, most trusted Ariel Sharon. Who do they trust now?

That is also a sobering thought. Beitar is now leading the league by a comfortable margin. Its owner-benefactor, who has been pumping tens of millions of dollars into the team, is Arcadi Gaydamak, the closest thing in Jerusalem to a Russian oligarch, who made his billion selling arms to Angola, and is now buying votes for a new “reform” party he has formed. His politics are a little woolly, since he is also buying Bedouin votes; but mostly he likes to court the hard right. He may well become the next mayor of Jerusalem.

I shall not, then, be welcome either. I doubt it will be fun.