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 Reviews 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.

Relat­ed Content:

  • Inter­view with Jonathan Wil­son, con­duct­ed by Mar­tin Fletcher
  • How Leonard Cohen Saved a Jew, Young and Trou­bled by Liel Leibovitz
  • Rock n’ Roll, Reli­gion, and Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz
  • 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.