A film on Israel’s “most racist” fans and an exhibition about how inclusive football can be both deal with Israeli conflict. Felix Tamsut reports on how two sides of the spectrum met at a Berlin football film festival.Israel is a place full of contradictions. The small country is mostly known for being in a constant state of war since its establishment in 1948, and its society is formed of a variety of groups that do not necessarily get along, including Jews of Arab, European and African descent and the country’s largest minority, the Arab-Muslims.
Its footballing scene is no different. Tolerance can be found at many of the country’s grounds, with Jews and Arabs cheering for the same teams. But on the other end of the scale, racism grabs the headlines, with slogans that hail Jews and insult Arabs heard without any interference from authorities. Now, elements of this conflict can be found in Berlin, at the 11mm Football Film Festival.
“The country’s most racist team”
“Forever Pure” tells the story of Beitar Jerusalem. Beitar is Jerusalem’s top club, having won the league on six occasions, with both the country’s prime minister and president taking pride in being long-time supporters. There’s just one slight problem: Beitar is the only club in Israel’s top flight never to sign an Arab-Muslim player, a fact that the club’s ultras take pride in, labelling their team as “the country’s most racist.”
When then-owner Arkady Gaydamak decided to sign two Chechen-Muslim players during the 12/13 season, things got heated between the club and the fans, with Beitar’s ultras shouting profanities at their own captain. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, one of the Muslim players scores a goal for Beitar and the club’s fans start leaving the stadium in protest.
Director Maya Zinshtein received death threats from some of Beitar’s most extreme fans after the movie started screening in Israel, writing her that her next movie “would be about her own funeral” on social media.
The highest of the low
Kaduregel Shefel – Hebrew for “low football” – paints a contrasting picture and is a project showing the duality of Israel. Two Tel Aviv photographers decided they want to travel to the country’s most remote grounds and the result was something that in Israel is being taken for granted, but not so much so abroad.
Gad Selner, one of the people behind the project, tells DW how it all began. “We drove to Umm al-Fahm, a town that is being perceived as not very friendly to Jews, and we discovered a world of lower league culture.”
As part of their discoveries in the weird world of the Israeli lower leagues, they managed to show how Jews and Arabs – two groups often perceived to be enemies – are playing football together in each other’s teams, without any sort of segregation.
“People outside of Israel are very surprised to discover that Arab teams can even win trophies, like Sakhnin (whose Israeli Cup win in 2004 is the only Israeli competition won by an Arab team) where Jews and Arabs play and cooperate together,” Selner said.
So how do both these extremes exist within the same small piece of land? Vadim Tarasov, also involved with Kaduregel Shefel, says Israel is not so special in that regard. “That’s how it is everywhere,” he says, while Selner elaborates. “You can see racism in football in places like Germany, the Balkans and elsewhere.”
While the movie holds up an extreme mirror to the Israeli society, Kaduregel Shefel argues that their exhibition shows how Israeli football can serve as an example of how things should be like. Selner even goes on to say that football is one of the “cleanest parts” of Israeli society when racism is concerned.
Stronger than love
“I don’t think the viewers of both the movie and the exhibition will make the connection between the two,” says Tarasov, but even he admits that if they do, the movie may have a greater impact. “We’re happy to show the other side,” he says. Festival attendee Sonja, a St Pauli fan, argues that it’s clear which one of the sides is more dominant. “Unfortunately, it seems like (Beitar fans) represent a big group of people,” she says in despair.
After the screening, Sonja, a Saint Pauli fan from Hamburg that came all the way to Berlin to watch the film, was shocked. “How can a fan not support his team? How can such a small group of people draw thousands after them? I don’t understand it.” Director Zinshtein told Israeli outlet Ma’ariv that this is exactly what she tried to achieve. “If the movie causes distress to the viewer, it means it works,” she argued. Mission accomplished.