'Forever Pure', a riveting documentary by Maya Zinshtein currently available on Netflix, reports on the 2012-3 season of Israel’s Beitar Jersualem FC. In 2005, Arcadi Gaydamak, a Russian born billionaire and convicted arms dealer, bought the team and used it as a propaganda tool in his unsuccessful 2008 run for mayor of Jerusalem (he got less than 4% of the vote). In 2012 Gaydamak took the team to Chechnya for an exhibition game. Ahead of the trip, one of the players worried that:”there will be Muslims there who hate us.” Instead what awaited them in Chechnya was a tie game, a banquet and dancing to Israeli songs. A Chechen official said he wanted to develop ties to Israel, following his prophet who said he should “develop economic ties with the Jews - not kill them.”
Perhaps in response to the enthusiastic reception, Gaydamak hired 2 young Chechen football players to join his team, then the only soccer team in the Israeli league that had never had an Arab Muslim player. The Chechens were met from their first practice by Beitar fans who shouted “war” and ‘death to the Arabs.” At first the Chechens seem bewildered, one said “someone should explain we are not Arabs.” Even the athlete’s mother naively coaches him, to “make sure you play well, then the fans will love you.”
The team is named for the Beitar movement, a revisionist Zionist movement that fought with Irgun against the British mandate. Among the team’s fans are a vocal group of right wing, mostly working class Mizrahi (Arab) Jews called the “familia” who see the team as their own. Politicians such as Lieberman and Netanyahu regularly attend Beitar’s games, pandering to the team’s supporters, one of whom boasts, “Today we are the country. The second Israel has become the first Israel.”
As the hostility against the Muslim players escalates, some Israelis tell the filmmaker that the familia are only a small percentage of Beitar’s fans. The familia demonstrate outside the players’ and coaches’ homes, and at one point scream obscenities and threats at the chairman, including a repeated threat to rape his 6 year old daughter.
At Beitar’s Teddy stadium, La Familia displays a huge sign that reads “Beitar Forever Pure.” The team’s chairman begs for tolerance, and says that Jews should not hold such a sign given the parallels between the sign’s racism and the racism Jews have faced. Gaydamak’s reaction to the familia’s blatant racism is the claim that he invited the Chechen players, not because of their soccer skills, but to “show this society (Israel) as it really is.”
Following news that bombing suspects in Boston are Chechen, La Familia calls for a boycott of Beitar. The stadium, usually packed with tens of thousands, has only a few hundred guests. Some on the team wonder what happened to all the Israelis who claimed that the racists were only a small group. Beitar’s offices and its museum of trophies, apparently a feature in many bar mitzvah pictures, are destroyed by a bomb.
The pressure on the team is evident, and a player whose brother is part of the familia honors the boycott. Distracted and disheartened, Beitar begins a long losing streak.
At the end of the season, La Familia calls off the boycott for one game only; the last crucial game, ironically against the only Arab team in the Israeli league, to determine which of the teams will qualify to remain in their league. After a tied score favors Beitar, its season ends and the Chechens go home. Gaydamak cedes ownership, literally giving Beitar away. By the following year the manager and the chairman have been fired, and the player who joined the boycott becomes the youngest captain in the league.
In a fitting coda to the story, in 2018, Beitar’s owner Moshe Hogeg, hired a Nigerian player named “Ali Mohammed.” When La Familia begins its protests, chanting “Mohamed is dead” and “Ali is dead,” Hogeg demands apologies and threatens lawsuits. Apparently because Ali Mohamed is a Christian, La Familia decides to accept him although they vow to “make sure that his name is changed so that Mohamed is not heard at Teddy Stadium.”
“Forever Pure” was funded in part by the liberal “New Israel Fund,” that uses its website to claim that chanting has been reduced and racism has been kicked out of the soccer field. Others may be less sanguine.