Following the normalisation agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, connections are being made between their sports and business worlds.
Businessman Moshe Hogeg, owner of Beitar Jerusalem football club, is currently in negotiation with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, with a view to them acquiring 49% ownership of his club.
Beitar Jerusalem has been struggling for some years, not only against underperforming on the pitch but also against a small core group of racist, violent fans who have been fighting efforts to bring Arab or Muslim players into the club.
The fan group, who call themselves La Familia, often daub anti-Arab graffiti around the club and are vocal in their dislike of Muslim players.
On Dec 4, about 100 La Familia members broke into Beitar’s training field to protest the emerging UAE deal, forcing the training session to stop. The club was forced to call the police to eject its own fans.
Afterward, Hogeg tweeted: “No one will deflect us from the path chosen by the majority of Beitar fans. The Emirates are aware of what is happening and will not be surprised over anything that takes place here by extremists.”
Hogeg met with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, and received the rabbi’s blessing for his actions in teaming up with the UAE.
“We do not ‘do’ racism in the holy city, and certainly not on my watch,” Hogeg told Al Monitor. “We need to take action to show that Muslims and Jews can work together, without fear.”
The large majority of fans approve the new deal, Hogeg said, perhaps because they hope it will inject enough money to allow Beitar to acquire top-level players. It’s a long time since Beitar tasted glory on the pitch.
One fan from the West Bank claims that Israel’s sports media actually encourage extremism. He told Al-Monitor that they like to lump all Beitar fans together, to give the impression that they are all Arab-haters and racists.
He said that in the two years since Hogeg acquired the club, he has led a real revolution by embarking on a “love thy neighbour” campaign. But the Israeli sports media refuse to accept the change and continues to search for the handful of fans who oppose Hogeg’s tactics.
The Emirates investors are not backing down.
If the agreement goes ahead, the Beitar stadium is expected to fill with Emirati visitors in keffiyehs on match days, in spite of La Familia.