Israel’s most controversial football team, Beitar Jerusalem, has banned reporters working for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz from its press box in an increasingly bitter row over reporting of the club’s alleged anti-Arab racism.
The club’s hardcore of supporters, known as La Familia, have become infamous over the years for their behaviour, including chants of ”death to Arabs” as well as ”the media are whores”. The club has dropped Haaretz’s football correspondent from a Whatsapp group for press releases and told its journalists they are no longer welcome in the press box.
Now, after bitter exchanges between the club and the newspaper, the case has been taken up by the Israeli journalists’ union and in parliament.
The controversy is the result of long-running friction between the club and the paper. Last year, Haaretz’s sports pages ran a campaign entitled ‘Until an Arab plays for Beitar Jerusalem …’. It said that no Arab had played for the club in its 80-year history despite being based in a city with a population that is 40% Palestinian.
Open hostilities between the club and the paper, however, broke out after one of the articles from last year’s campaign started circulating widely again on social media a few weeks ago.
At that point, the paper announced earlier this week, “the folks at Beitar decided that they were fed up, and announced … they were imposing sanctions”.
Referring to the “racist blot” on the club’s record, Haaretz disclosed that Beitar had stopped cooperating with the newspaper and dropped Haaretz reporter Dor Blech from their official press release group on WhatsApp. It added that they were denying Haaretz reporters admittance to their Teddy stadium for home matches.
The paper has been told that if it wanted to cover home matches, its journalists could buy tickets and stand with other fans.
Condemning the move, the Israeli Journalists Organisation wrote to the club, saying: “We were astonished to learn that a veteran soccer club like Beitar Jerusalem is excluding Haaretz sports correspondents from its press section at the stadium.”
The row has come in the wake of an increasingly febrile debate in Israel over racism that flared up again this week amid inflammatory remarks by a far-right MP, Bezalel Smotrich, and his wife supporting the segregation of Jews and Arabs on Israel’s maternity wards.
Complicating the issue is the fact that, while Beitar is privately owned, Teddy stadium is owned by the Jerusalem municipality. Widening the allegation, Haaretz accused Beitar of taking its lead from the increasingly rightwing mood in Israel in recent months that has seen ministers pursue leftwing human rights groups.
The paper added: “It appears that Beitar is being borne aloft by the ill winds blowing in Israel in recent months. The silencing of human rights organisations along with the stifling of democratic debate are spreading like wildfire.”
The club responded, saying that because Mizrahi Jews had come to Israel from places including Yemen and Morocco, it had had both an Arab player and an Arab owner.
“Haaretz won’t let facts get in their way,” replied Beitar spokesman Oshri Dudai. “Haaretz is a corpse that is being forcefully ventilated by some Ashkenazi [European Jewish] elite, sitting in an ivory tower in central Israel while trying to resuscitate this corpse, each time with a different provocation. This may infuriate us, but it doesn’t impact us. We unequivocally don’t care if we’re not covered by Haaretz.”
The row is not the club’s first brush with controversy. Last year, supporters travelled to an away match with the Belgian team Charleroi with banners supporting the banned extreme right Kach party and threw an object that injured the Belgian team’s goalkeeper.
In another match last year, Beitar fans directed racist abuse at Kiryat Shmona’s Ahmad Abad. Beitar’s hiring record was also an issue in the failed attempt last year by the Palestinian Football Association to have Israeli football suspended from Fifa.
This article was written by Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th April 2016 12.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010