Photo by Shimon Perlstein
It is the weekend of Hannukah in Israel, and a top-of-the-table clash is taking place inside Jerusalem's 31,000-seater Teddy Stadium. But this match is not between two clubs with Champions League aspirations: home side Beitar Nordia Jerusalem are taking on Kiryat Malachi in the fourth tier of Israeli football.
The main stand is a sea of yellow and black, with roughly 1,000 Nordia fans here to support their nascent team. It's not a bad turnout for an amateur club contesting only its third season. On the other side of the stadium, a small pocket of around 100 Malachi fans stand waving their flags and mustering up some kind of noise. But it's in the home end that the real action is taking place.
Instruments ranging from trumpets to bongo and snare drums maintain a constant rhythm of sound, with some 40 fans leading the way with an endless stream of chants. They are conducted by a passionate, animated and very bald fellow who, with his well-trimmed beard, sunglasses and megaphone, wouldn't look out of place in the Curva Sud of Roma. Among them are women and children clad with yellow and black face paint, smiling, laughing and enthusiastically joining in with the fun. Several large flags sway over my head, with designs including the famous menorah symbol of Beitar Jerusalem and Zev Jabotinsky drinking a beer. Jabotinsky, the pioneer of the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement, was a staunch nationalist who fought against the British mandate in Palestine. He was also a liberal democrat whose vision for a Jewish state included a prospering Arab population with equal rights. It is a great atmosphere, and a far cry from the scenes this stadium has grown accustomed to, which have marred both Israel's football and its society.
In recent years, discussion of Beitar Jerusalem has tended to focus on 'La Familia', a group of hardcore ultras who are infamous for their extreme right-wing political views and racism. One of the biggest and most successful clubs in Israeli football, Beitar Jerusalem have historically been the team of the Mizrachi working-class Israelis. Mizrachi – meaning 'Eastern' in Hebrew – refers to Jews who came to Israel from Arab and Muslim countries in the decades following the nation's creation in 1948. While always seen as a club of the right-wing – it was formed in 1936 as part of Jabotinsky's Beitar youth movement – it was not until the arrival of the ultra scene in Israel in the early 2000s that the club came to notoriety.
Members of the La Familia ultras group at a Beitar Jerusalem game // PA Images
As La Familia grew in size and power, assisted by direct funding and legitimisation (in exchange for its support) from Beitar's crooked former Russian-Israeli owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, more and more disenfranchised, moderate supporters began to give up their season tickets. After a spate of racist and violent incidents that shocked the nation – including the beating of Arab stadium workers after a game and a 300-strong mob going on an anti-Arab riot in a mall – the final straw for many Beitar fans was the saga of two Chechen players.
In an attempt to strengthen his shady business ties in Chechnya, Gaydamak decided to sign a pair of Muslim Chechen players for Beitar – the only club in Israel to have never signed an Arab, out of fear of a fan backlash. Unsurprisingly, this initiative was not welcomed by La Familia and intensified the split in the Beitar fan base. The saga ended with a torched Beitar clubhouse, two return flights to Chechnya, and national shame.
It is from this, the nadir of Israeli football that painted Jerusalem as a symbol of hate and racism, that the story of Beitar Nordia emerged. In a Jerusalem café on the morning of their vital game against Kiryat Malachi, I met with Nordia's chairman Itsek Alfasi. For Alfasi, an ardent Beitar supporter for almost 30 years, the idea to break away from the club to establish Nordia was far from easy: "You know what they say, there are two things you never change in life: your mother and your football club. For several years we tried to fight it from the inside. We tried to do all we could, organising normal fans, confronting them [La Familia] in the stands. But they were willing to take more risks than us, more violent, more brutal."
Asked whether he and like-minded fans had support against the ultras, Alfasi adds: "We did have cooperation from the club. Itsek Korenfein was the chairman, he understood the problem of La Familia. He tried to fight. Then it all came down to the saga of the Chechen players. It was a fight for the identity of Beitar: whether La Familia and the racist agenda would win, or the normal fans, and Beitar would be a football club like any other, accepting players regardless of nationality or religion." Alfasi pauses for a moment: "...and they won. It was a brutal war against their own club and against the other fans."
Beitar Nordia supporters // Photo by Hadar Alfasi
For Alfasi, the idea of simply giving up his season ticket and following the English Premier League from his sofa was not an option. The hijacking of the club he loved by a group of extremists felt like a personal affront. "For me, what really made me not willing to give up [was that] they took something from me that was really important, part of my identity, and they took it by violence. It felt very personal."
Inspired by the success of Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, formed in 2007 by Hapoel Jerusalem fans disenchanted by their own club's poor management, Alfasi and a few others decided to establish a new fan-owned team to reclaim the soul of Beitar Jerusalem. "We took Beitar back to the beginning, back to the original ideology of the Beitar movement, of Zev Jabotinsky, which was liberal nationalism: Zionism combined with humanism. This is where the story of Nordia begins."
Nordia, who started their first ever season in 2014 in the bottom tier of Israeli football, exemplified such values by starting their second campaign with two Arab Israeli players – an emphatic and symbolic middle finger to the racism of La Familia. Nordia have received support from all corners of Israeli society, including from Israel's president and lifelong Beitar fan Reuven Rivlin, who said that Nordia "brings back to life the heart and the soul that was once the essence of Beitar Jerusalem."
However, it is not plain sailing to entice local Arab players to join the club. Indeed, most join the Palestinian football league where clubs rarely pay taxes and can thus provide a cash salary that Nordia cannot compete with. Moreover, Arab Israelis from East Jerusalem are less inclined to integrate with Jewish Israelis than, for example, those in Haifa, Akko or Jaffa. Alfasi articulates this issue: "They are more extreme in their political views. They identify much more as Palestinians than Israelis, and they wont cooperate with any Jewish organisation, [because] if an Arab Israeli player from East Jerusalem joins a Jewish Israeli club, he'll have problems going back."
Photo by Hadar Alfasi
Despite this, there are plenty of reasons to be positive. "Football in Israeli society is where you can see coexistence in its best form. I think that in a few years we will have an Arab captain in the national team," says Alfasi proudly. He has reason for such optimism: some of the most talented players in the national team are Arab Israelis, such as Beram Kayal of Brighton & Hove Albion, and the armband was temporarily handed to Circassian Muslim player Bibras Natkho last year, and Walid Badir before him.
Football's ability to promote the virtues of coexistence is something Nordia are trying to make the most of through their youth academy, established this season despite the obstacles posed by the lack of football infrastructure in Israel's capital. For Alfasi, promoting the values of Nordia to these youngsters is equally important as raising players for the club. "We won't produce the next Messi," he muses, "but if we raise these children to be better people, that is more important."
Nordia are pursuing this further through lecturing at high schools in Jerusalem. "We tell pupils the story of Nordia. It is important for us to send the message that we are very proud Israelis, very proud Jewish people. But we think that part of it is having the values of accepting other people – especially because we're Jewish and because of our history – regardless of religions."
On the way back to Tel Aviv after the game, which Nordia lost 2-1, I was taken to the Arab village of Abu Ghosh for some post-match shawarma, where a group of the Nordia faithful were gathered. This small, Arab-owned restaurant sponsors Nordia, and the fans like to return the favour by eating there after their home games. The food was delicious, and I couldn't help feeling that this was one final symbolic gesture of peace and coexistence, in a day that had been full of them.
Nordia fans dance amidst a flare up // Photo by Barak Turgeman
"Jerusalem is a very complex city," Alfasi says contemplatively. "I think most of the people here understand that, and they live their lives. They are much more tolerant than the image of Jerusalem as a city of lunatics. Most of the people you'll meet here will be normal, with different political views and ideologies, which is acceptable. The extremist voice is much louder than what it actually is and what it represents."
So, what lies ahead for Nordia? "It is difficult for us to dream and think too much in advance. Each year we are struggling to exist. We want to succeed on the field and off it and to deliver our message that there is another Beitar and that Beitar's values are not what people saw from La Familia. There are people like this, unfortunately, but they do not represent the full picture. They hijacked our club. We aim to provide a voice to the silent majority who oppose La Familia, and football is a very powerful tool for this."
Clearly, there is still much work to be done. But, if Nordia was created to reclaim the soul of Beitar Jerusalem by sending the world a statement about the virtues of peace and tolerance, it has certainly made a very promising start.