Directed by Maya Zinshtein
Screening at the Antenna documentary festival on October 15*
WHEN PEOPLE MENTION football tribalism, you think of the sectarian rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, the political grievances between Red Star Belgrade and Dynamo Zagreb, or the class war between River plate and Boca Juniors in Argentina.
But none of them turned against their own club like the fans of Beitar Jerusalem. Forever Pure examines the response of the club’s hard-core supporter group to the purchase of two Muslim players from Chechnya. It paints an ugly portrait of human nature and highlights a deep strain of religious racism within Israeli society that has shaped modern Israeli politics.
Beitar Jerusalem has several claims to fame. It was founded in 1936, has the largest supporter base in the country, has strong links to the Likud party (Israeli president Reuben Rivlin is a former CEO of the club) and unlike other Israeli clubs, had proudly never signed an Arab player. In the 2012-13 season, its Russian-Israeli owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, who admits on camera that he bought the club as a propaganda tool to help him get elected as Mayor of Jerusalem, purchased two players from Chechnya after taking the team on a tour there to boost his business links.
Before the two players were signed, the team was rising up the ladder and looked set to enjoy its best season in years. Their arrival signalled a revolt from the ultra-nationalistic fan group, known as La Familia, that tore apart the team, the supporters and the club.
The title of the film, which is taken from a banner that appears at matches “Beitar Forever Pure”, reflects the racism within the supporter psyche. They are proud of that title, chanting: “Here we are, the most racist team in the country.” Later, they shout: “Death to the Arabs”.
They taunt the owner for signing the players, then the captain for not disowning them. They bait the Chechen players at training and at matches, inciting one into a fight on the sideline, before he even gets on the field.
The captain is shocked, so are the Chechen players; the mother of one flies over to Israel and tries to placate him with the idea that once he scores a goal, all will be good. In fact, when the other Chechen import does score a goal, La Familia fans walk out of the stadium en masse. On Facebook they ask the captain to speak out against the club for buying these two players.
Finally, this group boycotts the club’s matches and the silent majority of other fans, some 20,000 adults, meekly obey their order. Beitar Jerusalem is seen playing in front of just a few hundred people. As one independent supporter says: where are all the other, so-called non-racist fans? What are their values when they are tested?
Director Maya Zinshtein burrows deeper to draw out the other forces unleashed. An Argentinian player in the team says most of the Israeli players sympathise with the fans, and do nothing to support the Chechen players. One player then posts on Facebook in support of the racist fans.
The owner, Gaydamak confesses that he “bought the two players on purpose because I expected that reaction. I wanted to show Israeli society as it really is.” This bizarre admission produces perhaps the only false note in this documentary, as the interviewer does not push him to clarify the political ambition or agenda behind his decision.
On the field, the club plummets, losing match after match. The captain is despondent: “It’s hard to play against your own fans.”
What more can go wrong? The club is firebombed. No prizes for guessing who did it. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is seen wooing Beitar fans during an earlier election campaign, denounces the attack in a press conference. At the end of a calamitous season, there is a day of reckoning for the owner, management, imported players and the fans.
This is a riveting but devastating story that confronts the myth that Israeli society – not the ultra-Orthodox right, but ordinary people – can somehow be separated from the nationalist instincts of its politicians.
Forever Pure exposes a level of racial prejudice and herd psychology that are scarcely believable within a civilised democracy. It also adds a new chapter to the pathology of football culture, and provides a disturbing twist to the “us and them” mentality that frames the politics of populism.
It should be seen in schools, boardrooms and houses of Parliament around the world.
Forever Pure will screen at the Antenna documentary film festival at the Verona cinema, Sydney at 6.30pm on October 15