It is perhaps both more pat and more prescient than ever before to write that national and identity politics are a complicated, complex labyrinth. In Israel, this tangled web is bound up in historical, religious, and cultural ties that make even a simple soccer match a battle field fraught with political implications. The most well-known and shamelessly defiant participant of the Israeli fútbol wars is Beitar Jerusalem, whose refusal to field Arab players ended in 2013, when Russian-Israeli owner Arkady Gaydamak bucked the majority of the club’s fans and the wrath of hardcore fanclub La Familia, and signed two Chechen Muslim players. Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev played well, Sadayev even scoring weeks after his debut, a feat which Beitar fans celebrated by streaming out of the stadium in protest. When La Familia burnt down Beitar’s clubhouse to intimidate Gaydamak into selling the Chechen players, Beitar reinstated its unofficially official policy on not signing Arab players. The fans had made their will known.
While Beitar Jerusalem’s unapologetic racism is rare in its blatant stance, other Israeli clubs have been hesitant to fully represent the diversity that exists throughout Israel. Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the most well known and well-supported teams in one of the country’s most multicultural and liberal cities, has seen an uptick in nationalist fan behavior that has, unsurprisingly, corresponded with a more homogenous squad. Though Maccabi Tel Aviv still fields Belorussian Egor Filipenko and Argentinian Oscar Scarione, they sold Nigerian Nosa Igiebor to Turkey’s Çaykur Rizespor while Bosnian Haris Medunjanin left for MLS with five months left on his contract. No Israeli Arab plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Into this charged fray came a band of passionate futból fans fed up with the racism and divisiveness that permeated sport culture and left them with few options to get behind. Banding together in 2007 to take over the reins of the financially failing club Hapoel Jerusalem, a group of supporters, including future two-term Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, each contributed 1,000 shekels (approximately $266) to reform that club as Hapoel Katamon, the first Israeli club to be fully owned by fans. “We were euphoric. In that moment it was very avant-garde. Now it’s very fashionable to mount cooperatives, but then we promoted the idea that fútbol doesn’t belong to the owners of a club, but to the masses,” remembers one of Hapoel’s original founders, Ori Katz, of that heady time, when crowds of two to three thousand would flock to Hapoel Katamon’s Teddy Stadium to watch their new team finish the league in a shocking second place.
True to form, the fan-owners and their players led their team both on and off the pitch, putting a clause in players’ contracts requiring service hours; adopting a disabled team that had been bullied by rivals; and establishing a soccer academy to bring Arab and Jewish children together. Appropriately named The Neighborhood League’s Equals Team, and made up of 100 children who train together under the watchful eye of Hapoel Katamon players, the 10-12 year olds come from vastly different backgrounds, crossing socio-economic and linguistic boundaries and even, as they drive to the stadium from their homes in settlements near the West Bank or in the Arab quarter in East Jerusalem, literal checkpoints. Once they pull on their cleats and clatter onto the field, they are any typical, excited, muddy kid, clamoring for attention from their favorite star player and racing to get the ball into the net.
In the slightly stilted English of a children who would rather be racing around the pitch with their friends, Hapoel Katamon’s website directly acknowledges the purpose and necessity for bringing these children together. Many had lived their entire lives directly across from each other on the “main road” from the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina and the East Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, yet had never met. Now, once a week, they were no longer different religions, ethnicities, or even speakers of different languages; they were simply soccer players.
Although we meet each other on a regular basis at Hapoel Katamon’s Neighborhood League, our friends from Beit Hanina once in every week cross the main road between our two neighborhoods and come to play with us at Pisgat Ze’ev’s football pitch. Until we joined the Neighborhood League, we didn’t know anyone from Beit Hanina, but now we do! It’s funny that we live so close to each other and until now haven’t met. It’s great to play soccer with them; they are really good and they make us better!
Club captain Aviram Baruchyan regularly kicks the ball around with the kids’ team. “Soccer contributes to the advancement of coexistence and equality, and it is great that children in the city, Jews and Arabs, have the opportunity to meet each other, and see that common ground, including love of soccer, infinitely outweighs the differences.”
Where there have been ups and downs to the club’s footballing successes – in their third season, the fans voted to willingly drop to the fifth division so they would have sole management control – they have never wavered in their commitment to social justice causes. They were the first club in Israel to operate a girls’ team, which is also comprised of Jewish and Arab girls from all over Jerusalem. Hapoel Katamon’s youth team requires a similar service of their young players as they do of their men’s squad, with both the youngsters and professional players regularly offering language immersion classes to newly arrived immigrants, helping integrate refugees to Jerusalem’s fast-paced, often confusing societal mechanisms. Even as former team manager Uri Sharatsky demurred that his team wasn’t political, former Hapoel midfielder and current manager Shai Aharon maintains that fútbol is an “educational tool, for everyone and by everyone.”
The activist outlook carries through to the stadium, where socialist chants and songs reverberate around grounds filled with men, women, and children of the same colors, races, and religions found in all walks of Israeli society. Women in religious headscarves mingle with rowdy teenagers, as the team do not play on Saturdays so fans of all religious persuasions can attend the games. Both Hebrew and Arabic adorn every webpage, banner, and team flier. During Gay Pride Month, after a 16-year-old girl died of a stabbing attack at the Jerusalem Pride Parade that sent five others to the hospital, Hapoel Katamon took down their red and black corner flags and replaced them with bright rainbows, blaring the hashtag #SayNoToHomophobia on their website and social media pages along with photos of the new corner markers.
Other teams are beginning to take notice of Hapoel’s progressive policies. Among the hammer and sickle banners and images of Che Guevara adorning the stadium are Werder Bremen flags, and the red and black of Hapoel Katamon can be seen at Bremen’s Weserstadion. Fans have participated in an exchange program, and officials at the Bundesliga team invited members from Hapoel to Germany to discuss their social action activities and ideas. Barcelona, too, have taken them up on their hospitality, with a Catalan squad visiting Jerusalem for inspiration on how to adapt ideas, like Hapoel’s fast-growing girls’ squad and social projects, to their own club ethos.
This is a country where Tal Ben Haim and Yossi Benayoun, long back from the Premier League, still lace up their boots each week to play as their nation’s returning heroes. A country where it is not impossible to see a grown man go to work wearing a Messi jersey under his suit jacket, and where many have made the journey at least once to Camp Nou to see La Pulga play. Yet even with these homegrown and ascendant stars close at hand, Hapoel Katamon offers something that not even Lionel can: the simple, impossible magic of a fútbol team in helping all corners of society come together as one.