As Israelis debate the despicable behavior of some Beitar Jerusalem fans in Belgium last week, it is difficult to decide which is more incomprehensible: the surprise elicited by yet another incident of nationalistic violence surrounding a soccer match, or the near-hysterical rush of Israelis to apologize for the actions of few Jewish hooligans who represent no one but themselves.
Not as an excuse for Beitar fans’ behavior but as a way of understanding the phenomenon, it is important to note that the violence in Belgium was not one-sided. Yes, the hooliganism of the Beitar fans was picked up on TV cameras: There were the flares and firecrackers that rained down onto the pitch just 90 seconds into the match between Beitar and Belgium’s Sporting Charleroi and there was the blood on the forehead of Charleroi’s goalkeeper resulting from an object thrown at him.
But while Beitar aficionados – or at least those ultras referred to as “La Familia” – had behaved in a barbarous fashion, the Belgians were no models of restraint and moderation.
The night before, at least one Beitar supporter was hurt after Charleroi fans harassed the Israelis in the “Leffe” cafe, according to a first-person account that appeared on the Sports Rabbi website. (The same source reported that later on a Charleroi fan was knifed by a Beitar fan.) There are also photographs of Charleroi fans making the Nazi salute in the stadium on the day of the match. And there were probably other violent incidents that can be attributed to aggression and nationalistic bigotry on both the Israeli and Belgian sides.
How could it be otherwise? Those who claim that sport creates goodwill among nations seem to be oblivious to the long history of orgies of hatred generated by sporting contests, particularly soccer matches. In the 1980s, the English were known for their hooliganism, perpetrated by the riffraff that followed their soccer clubs all over Europe.
In the last decade, militant supporters of Lazio and Roma – two Italian soccer teams – were infamous for buttock slashings (puncicate in Italian) and other acts of violence directed against fans of rival teams.
Aggression is practically inherent to soccer. Seventy years ago George Orwell in his essay “The Sporting Spirit” traced the rise of competitive sports to the rise of nationalism.
The strong emotions and long-term loyalties connected to soccer matches have little to do with the intricacies of the game, the techniques of the players and appreciation for the tremendous effort that goes into the making of a great athlete.
Rather, fans – and particularly the extremists among them – are exercised by their nationalistic loyalties and base tribalism. Running, jumping and kicking a ball are not about virtuoso sports ability, they are tests of a nation’s virtue. Defeat on the soccer field is not just proof of players’ weakness, inferiority or instability as sportsmen, it is a humiliation extending well beyond the turf that reflects negatively upon one’s tribe or one’s nation. And that humiliation must be erased. If nothing else, Beitar ultras have succeeded through their hooliganism in obscuring Beitar’s rout at the hands of Charleroi 5-1. This is not to say that soccer is the cause of bigotry and racism; rather it is a foil for rousing passions connected with tribalism and nationalism.
Yet the antics of some of Beitar’s fans should not be a trigger for nationwide chest-thumping. Yes, Israel has its own hooligans just as the English, the Italians and the Belgians have theirs. How many of us are sorry that these thugs beat each other senseless? But while the highest-ranking Israeli politicians feel the need to apologize for the actions of a few dozen Beitar fans who behaved badly and while Israeli pundits warn that Israel’s very legitimacy is at stake as a result of last week’s events in Belgium, you do not find contrite politicians and opinion-makers in Belgium, Italy or Britain going out of their way to denounce hooliganism by their fans for fear the very legitimacy of their country is at risk, and rightly so.
That’s because these hooligans are hardly representative of an entire nation, whether that nation be Jewish or Belgian.
Racist or nationalist-motivated violence has always been a byproduct of soccer competitions and there is no reason to believe this will change anytime soon or that the Jewish state will be exceptionally immune to the phenomenon.
However, steps can and should be taken by law enforcement agencies and by soccer associations to punish the hooligans and where possible prevent them from gaining access to stadiums in the future.