Posted by Nat Bernstein
Liel Leibovitz is participating in the 2014 – 2015 JBC Network with A Broken Hallelujah: The Life of Leonard Cohen. It is a tremendous biography — of particular interest to Jewish communities in its exploration of Cohen’s Scripture-influenced lyrics, personal spirituality, and residencies in Israel — and is certainly well worth bringing to book fairs and literary events this year, as is the author himself. But over the past week an imagined conversation on a completely different topic has been playing out in my head, between Liel and fellow 2014 – 2015 JBC Network author Jonathan Wilson.
Liel rocked the Jewish world last week with a provocative piece for Tablet Magazine on the Jewish Israelis responsible for the murder of Muhammed Abu-Khudair. “If you want to understand the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Muhammaed Abu-Khudair in the hands of six young Israelis last week,” the essay claims, “don’t turn to Bibi or the Bible or Hamas or Abbas: turn to Beitar Jerusalem, the favorite soccer team of Israel’s ‘undivided capital.’”
An early leak from a Mishteret Yisrael officer revealed that the six suspects arrested in pursuit of the case were active in a zealous, violent, and notoriously racist group of Beitar fans known as La Familia, and allegedly descended unto their murderous maraud from a soccer fan gathering. It was the unchecked sports fanaticism — more so than any nationalist or religious ideologies — of La Familia, FIFA, and soccer culture in general, claims Liel, that escalated into unthinkable brutality.
“To American readers, across the ideological spectrum,” Liel writes, “very little about the soccer thug scenario is likely to make sense. Yet if you understand soccer, and if you know Beitar, you realize that an act of extreme Clockwork Orange-style violence is an entirely possible, even predictable, outcome of the team’s fringe culture.” He cites various instances of hooliganism he has witnessed firsthand at Beitar games and in the aftermath of the team’s losses, as well as reports of La Familia activity that demonstrate the group’s shift “from low-level barbarism to rabid mass attacks” and unveil its members as “devoutly egalitarian devotees of violence for the hell of it.”
Though it has yet to take root in the United States, the aggressive culture surrounding soccer is, sadly, a worldwide phenomenon — to which writer, professor, and most recently The Paris Review’s World Cup 2014 correspondent Jonathan Wilson attests in his childhood and adult experiences detailed in Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. On a northern California bus ride to a World Cup 1994 match, Wilson recounts:
I realized that for days I had felt something was missing, and now I knew what it was: fear and violence. If you grow up attending soccer games in England, you are so used to spine-chilling episodes that the adrenaline flow they bring becomes an essential part of your chemical makeup. If I didn’t have to cross the road five times to avoid bands of skinhead thugs, or listen in terror as twenty thousand fans chanted “Kill the Yids” or “You’re gonna get your fucking heads kicked in,” I didn’t know I was at a game. Once I realized that my entire soccer consciousness was perverted.
The history of the very stadiums, Jonathan notes, is also torridly troubling. He discusses visiting Nuremberg and the Städtisches Stadion, erected just before Jonathan’s father passed through on a summer vacation, which as of 1933 was co-opted as Stadion der Hitler-Jugend, “the preferred marching ground for the Hitler Youth.” Dictators’ use of soccer facilities in later half of the twentieth century proved far worse: Pinochet gathered Chilean dissidents into the National Stadium in Santiago, where they were brutally murdered by the Junta; Mobutu Sese Seko used the basement of the 20th of May Stadium in Kinhasa, Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as a torture prison for his detractors; Uday Saddam Hussein directed the torture of Shiite footballers on Iraq’s national soccer team based on their athletic performance, keeping “scorecards with written instructions on how many times each player should be beaten after a poor showing.”
But as history and current events show, the perpetration of violence and in and surrounding soccer stadiums is not limited to powerful tyrants and sadists; soccer fans worldwide have distended into skirmishing forces of senseless brutality, and Israelis are no exception. “One reason why the police in Jerusalem may have apprehended their suspects so quickly,” Liel writes of the arrests for Muhammed Abu-Khudair’s murder, “is that they have devoted considerable resources over the past decade to keeping tabs on the city’s violent soccer hooligans, just like police do in Munich, and Warsaw, and Brussels, and London, and Madrid.” Jonathan compares the Hapoel-Beitar rivalry at games he attended while living in Israel to other ideological divides: socialist-aligned Barcelona against fascist Real Madrid; Catholic support for Celtic, Liverpool, and Manchester United against Protestant Rangers, Everton, and Manchester City fans in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester. Liel, on the other hand, opines that the thuggish soccer culture stems from “simply the pure, visceral, sickening thrill of violence:”
Sometimes, it appropriates the language of politics, attaching itself to a party or an ideology or an ethnic group. But it’s always first and foremost about soccer, about the ritualized violence that give young and hopeless men meaning and comfort[…] Anyone who watches soccer more frequently than a few matches every four years understands that intuitively.
Last week, the JBC Network offered a conversation about women’s mourning as a proposed way forward from the tragic murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah, and Muhammad Abu Khdeir. As our communities struggle to address these events and the weeks of destruction since, let us continue to find ways to talk about what happened, what is happening now, and what we hope will follow.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.