Beitar Jerusalem, perhaps the most controversial team in the Israeli Premier League, are back in the headlines. Only this time, it's not for the behavior of the Israeli soccer team's notorious fans, but rather its coach. In an interview with a local radio station, Beitar Jerusalem manager Guy Levy made a series of statements about Israeli-Arabs that show the club's true colors.
When asked if he would sign an Israeli-Arab to Beitar, Levy responded by saying, "I do not think it's the right time; it would create tensions and cause a lot of damage.
"It's really not the time. Even if there was a player who suited us professionally, I would not bring him in; it would do more harm than good."
It should be noted that, last season, Levy was the manager of Bnei-Sakhnin, Israel's only Israeli-Arab Premier League team and Beitar Jerusalem's biggest rival. He also was the manager of the U-21 Israel National Team, where he happily coached several Israeli-Arabs.
Later in the interview, Levy was asked if he would sign Bibras Natkho, an Israeli Circassian Muslim who currently is one of the best players on Israel's national team and stars in the Russian Premier League for powerhouse CSKA Moscow. Once again, Levy's response indicated that it would be better not to sign him.
After hearing Levy's comments about Israeli-Arabs and himself, Natkho fired back at Levy by posing a hypothetical question: "What would happen if a European coach would have announced that he doesn't want a Jewish player on his team?" Meanwhile, Israel Football Association President Ofer Eini condemned Levy's words.
"Levy's words are not appropriate and their racist scent certainly doesn't contribute to Israeli soccer and Israeli society," Eini said in a statement. "As a coach and an educator it would have been better had he avoided comments which can serve those who want to divide Israeli society."
So, why would a football manager, who just last season coached an Israeli-Arab squad and a national youth team full of Muslims, make such racist comments?
The answer is job security. And La Familia.
La Familia is the ultra football supporters' group for Beitar Jerusalem. Established in 2005, they since have earned several global headlines for their opposition to signing Muslim and Arab players. The group has been documented chanting "death to Arabs" during matches and has gotten the club fined tens of thousands of dollars for their racist behavior towards Israeli-Arabs and Muslims during games.
According to some estimates, La Familia has between 3,000 and 5,000 members. More importantly, they have a lot of power within Beitar Jerusalem.
Guy Levy was hired as the club's interim manager after Menachem Koretzsky was sacked earlier in the season. He is looking for a contract extension. According to well-known Israeli sports journalist Ouriel Daskal, Levy made his controversial statements with his employment future in mind.
"He is brown-nosing La Familia," Daskal said. "Levy is saying what they want because he wants to keep the job at Beitar. He knows that he will get La Familia's support for saying those things."
And how much influence does La Familia have over the club?
"La Familia doesn't necessarily run Beitar, but they decide who will be able to run the club smoothly and who will have a hard time doing so," Daskal said. "Former Beitar Jerusalem chairman Itizk Korenfein, tried to go head on against La Familia and eventually lost the battle. Eli Tabib, Beitar Jerusalem's current owner, is 'smarter.' Tabib cooperates with La Familia and basically lets them do whatever they want."
Dudi Mizrahi, a 26-year-old former member of La Familia, once famously said on Israeli television that if Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo were Arabs, he wouldn't want them on his team. The Israeli police would go on to keep tabs on Mizrahi and even arrested him a few times.
Earlier this year, Mizrahi had a massive change of heart and abruptly decided to leave La Familia to create his own supporters group, the Lions Den, that would be aimed at families—and more importantly, a group that believes in equality.
Mizrahi explained that his new group condemns Levy's remarks. Neither he nor the Lions Den would want a Jewish player disqualified from a squad because of their religion or ethnicity—and as such, it should be the same in Israeli soccer for players of other races or religions.
Levy made his remarks a day after attending the La Familia supporters tournament, where he spent time with members of the group. Mizrahi believes that La Familia members must have encouraged Levy to support their policies and it is no surprise he made the controversial comments the next day.
"La Familia is a fascist organization [that] reminds me of the dark Nazi organizations," Mizrahi said.
Even though La Familia and Beitar Jerusalem continue to get fined and punished by the Israel Football Association, it appears none of the punishments have kept La Familia from continuing their racist behavior. For example, three months ago during a Beitar Jerusalem match against Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, Beitar supporters chanted racist slurs at Israeli-Arab footballer Ahmad Abed.
After the match, the Israel Football Association punished Beitar Jerusalem by not allowing them to play a home match for three months. Ironically, the first match Beitar hosted at home after the three month punishment was against Hapoel Kiryat Shmona. Once again, throughout the entire match La Familia supporters chanted racist slurs over and over at Ahmad Abed.
Daskal suggests it might be time to punish not only Beitar Jerusalem and La Familia, but also the Israel Football Association if the racism doesn't stop.
"The authorities should fight Beitar's racism which is blatantly obvious," he said. "The song that La Familia sings when the team comes out from the dressing room goes: 'here comes the most racist team in the land.' They are proud of that. Beitar should be banned. FIFA and UEFA should fight them and the Israeli Football Association until Beitar Jerusalem start kicking out these racist fans."
Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub was furious with Levy's comments and called Beitar Jerusalem a racist club which should be kicked out of the league. In response to Rajoub's statements on Beitar, the Jerusalem club issued the following statement:
"A person whose hands are stained with the blood of Israel, is the last one who can talk about Beitar Jerusalem."
Further complicating matters, Levy's comments come as Israeli football finds itself facing a larger political challenge.
At the end of May, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) officially will submit to the FIFA Congress a request for sanctions and potential expulsion against the Israeli Football Association (IFA) for a laundry list of infractions.
Two weeks ago an Israeli delegation led by IFA President Ofer Eini and executive Rotem Kemer flew to Switzerland to meet with UEFA President Michel Platini. While neither UEFA nor Platini have spoken publicly, Eini told Israeli media outlets that UEFA and Platini would support Israel and not want to see them suspended from FIFA.
"Platini stressed that Israel is an inseparable part of UEFA and is an equal member that is welcome in the UEFA family," an IFA statement read.
However, according to several reports and sources, FIFA President Sepp Blatter will not visit the region as expected. Instead, IFA President Ofer Eini is expected to fly to Zurich and meet with Blatter. Previously, Blatter told reporters that he would try and get Rajoub to drop his request to get Israel suspended.
"I will try to convince him that such a situation should not occur at FIFA," Blatter said. "A suspension of any member affects badly the whole organization."
In the meantime, Issawi Frej, an Israeli-Arab member of Israel's national legislature known as the Knesset, has decided to try and figure out a way to set up a meeting between Eini and Rajoub. Frej, a member of the left-wing party Meretz, said that earlier this week he traveled to PFA headquarters in Ramallah to meet with Rajoub.
During the three-and-a-half hour meeting, Rajoub and Frej discussed Guy Levy's comments, freedom of movement for Palestinian football players, and ways to offer more freedom to the PFA in general.
Frej is scheduled to meet with Eini in the coming days. Frej hopes that at the conclusion of that meeting, he will be able to take Eini to Ramallah for an historic meeting with Rajoub.
Frej explained that several politicians, right and left, want to solve this crisis and do so quickly. He went on to say that it is important that Rajoub feels that the PFA accomplished something with the talks and that, although he does not want Israel expelled from FIFA, it is important Rajoub has something to show the PFA after all these meetings.
Last Friday, Rajoub addressed the PFA's demands, "I hope that Blatter can convince Netanyahu to remove all restrictions against Palestinian athletes. There's no room for compromise—the Israeli government must recognize Palestine Football Association Territories and allow free movement entirely of athletes and judges in the West Bank and Gaza."
Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extends to almost every aspect of life in the region, including football. Perhaps that means football also can be part of a solution.