Fire Destroys Offices of Israeli Soccer Team That Recruited Muslims

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JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday condemned as "shameful" the recent protests by soccer fans here of their team's recent recruitment of two Muslim players, hours after the offices of the team were burned in what the police suspect was arson by some of those fans.

"We cannot accept such racist behavior," Mr. Netanyahu said. "The Jewish people, who suffered excommunications and expulsions, need to represent a light unto the nations."

The team, Beitar Jerusalem, has long been linked to Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party, and for 15 years has been notorious for racism and violence, including an episode last spring in which fans stormed a mall chanting "Death to Arabs" and beat up several Arab employees. Founded in 1936, it is the only one of Israel's professional soccer teams never to have recruited an Arab player.

The current controversy concerns the team's addition of two Muslim players from Chechnya. Although one is injured, the other is expected to play for the first time in a match on Sunday against a team from Sakhnin, an Arab-Israeli town.

In anticipation of the Muslim players' arrival, some fans unfurled a banner at the team's Jan. 26 game saying "Beitar Pure Forever." Some critics said the banner was reminiscent of Nazi Germany's expulsion of Jews from sports, and it led to nationwide soul-searching.

Four fans were indicted on Thursday for incitement. Beitar headquarters were set on fire at 5 a.m. Friday, according to the police, destroying the team's trophies, commemorative jerseys of former stars, championship flags, photographs and books. "All the history of Beitar Jerusalem," said the team spokesman, Asaf Shaked. "It's not damage by money, it's damage by emotion."

The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, also condemned the violence on Friday, likening the perpetrators to the mafia. Limor Livnat, Israel's minister of culture and sport, said she would attend Sunday's game to show support for the team's management.

Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said a special investigative team was looking into the arson, which he said "gushed through the offices," and that the police would not only send hundreds of extra officers to Sunday's game, but seek to arrest troublemakers beforehand.

Eli Abarbanel, a senior state prosecutor and Beitar fan, said on Israel Radio on Friday that the soccer struggle reflected "a broad phenomenon of racism in all of Israeli society," citing expressions of "joy" on social media after a recent bus accident that killed 20 Palestinian children.

Itzik Kornfein, Beitar's manager, also said that the dispute had "gone beyond sports" and had "ramifications for Israeli society and for how we look to the world." Speaking to Israel Radio, Mr. Kornfein vowed not to back down from his decision to integrate the team, saying, "I don't compromise on the matter of racism" and predicting that "after violence of this kind, people will come to their senses."

Mr. Shaked, the Beitar spokesman, said management would "continue to fight against this part of the fans" and "continue to hug the two players" in order "to show all the world" that the club is not defined by the slogans shouted from the stands.

"I hope that from this Sunday we're going to start a new way for the club," he said. "We call that 'The New Beitar.' This is the slogan of the club now: a different Beitar, a new Beitar."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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