Football and Activism in Jerusalem

This text was contributed by a fan of Hapoel Katamon: Israel’s first fan owned football club located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. The club is known for their supporters’ activism and community projects.

Where I grew up in Jerusalem I was faced with very little choices, either you are a fan of Beitar Jerusalem [Israeli Premier League football club with extreme right following] , or you need to lie that you are. I didn’t even know an alternative to Beitar existed and I never met any fans of any other team while I was growing up. I didn’t come from a family who was into football, let alone Jerusalemite one, but, for some reason, although no one guided me to it, when everyone in class sang songs for Beitar and chanted for it, I cursed them with all my heart.

I hated them because buses were exploding on the streets, and I knew as a kid that the same nationalistic poison in the racist chants of my classmates for Beitar were the same nationalistic poison that was blowing up buses and restaurants in front of my eyes. Growing up I was always the kid at right-wing schools building up anger inside me for all the racism, militarism and bigotry I was being taught in school.

It was only when I was 14 when I first heard on the news about Hapoel Jerusalem. There was a segment about a clash between the fans and the management of the club (Victor Yona and Yossi Sassi), there were shots of fans being disappointed about losing another chance to advance to the first league. I was amazed by their devotion but I had no one to talk to about it.

In the next season at 2007 I was getting reports from my brother on how a new football club, Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem was being formed. His friend was one of the first to initiate the new club. It was a completely new thing in Israeli football: tired of the owners of Hapoel Jerusalem, the fans created a fan-owned club that was aiming to reach the first league and change Jerusalem for the better.

Photo: Tomer Feld

My brother took me to a match on the first season in our history. I was shocked when I got to the stands for the first time, at the small pitch at the Hebrew University. I immediately fell in love with the atmosphere, the humor, the public hatred to Beitar, and the diversity of the people. I felt at home. A year afterward I went to a different school, and I got involved more in political activism. I met like-minded friends, and our shared passion to Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem created a bond between us that lasts to this day.

The situation here in Israel is becoming unbearable. Although the country is safe, fortified with mass surveillance and walls, cracking brutal occupation by military and police forces supported by military and civil judicial systems which sole aim is the growing annexation and colonialism of Palestinian land, the Israeli population is becoming more and more intolerant, nationalistic and plain and simple racist. While the excuses for the situation shrink, the justification people invent for it just keep on coming, and the hatred to those telling the truth is reaching new heights. As I see it, from the seed of nationalism I recognized as a kid from the songs for Beitar, grew a seemingly unbeatable monster of bigotry and blind devotion to the status quo.

Going to matches week after week it became clear that we had to take actions through our emerging community. It was the only place we managed to organize with like-minded friends and push forward activities.

Photo: Tomer Feld

Three of us established a fanzine, called The Red Tribune (HaYatzia HaAdom), where for the last 3 years we’ve published 25 editions and shared stories about politics in football and radical activism. Our first initiative outside the fanzine was Inspired by Werder Bremen [German sports club], as we began by putting pressure on the club to take a stand regarding LGBTQ+ rights. We organized a group of Hapeol fans to march at the Jerusalem Pride Parade.

Our solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community slowly entered the stand, first by waving the rainbow flag, but the big change came in 2015. We joined another march, and as we were chanting against the Likud party (the leading right-wing party in Israel) group next to us and Lehava (a racist movement against inter-marriages in Israel) who were protesting from outside the marching area, when all of a sudden the crowd became silent. We were told it wasn’t the time to chant slogans, we didn’t understand exactly what happened but we ran forward as people were running at the other direction. I was a medic at the military occupation forces at the time and I was completely overwhelmed with all the blood at the scene. In a cry of anger and frustration all we could do as a group at that moment was to shout that “homophobia beings in the corridor of the government”, we didn’t stop saying it until the end of the horrific day. On that event, a young teenager named Shira Banki was brutally murdered at the parade by a zealot who carried out a similar attack a few years earlier.

Our support as football fans for the LGBTQ+ community gave the legitimacy for the club to become involved with the struggle for gender equality in Israel. The name of the club’s girls team was changed to Hapoel Shira, and a rainbow flag was decorating the corner flags at the stadium in an unforgettable match. They were removed due to a complaint filed against us by a well-known extreme-right activist and lawyer at the Israeli football association court. To this day we still continue to be present and the parades as fans and the club continue to cooperate with the Jerusalemite LGBTQ+ community. Homophobic slurs are nowhere to be heard at our tribunes.

Photo: Tomer Feld

In recent years the struggle for humane treatment for African asylum seekers in Israel is one of the main challenges the Israeli left is facing. Racist policies deliberately aimed against African asylum seekers are meant to make them hate life in Israel and force them into leaving the country, as there is no legal ground to deport them. After the struggle for the LGBTQ+ community we knew that we had to focus on asylum seekers’ rights. We first began with creative actions outside of the stands. We turned the Welcome sign of the city to a ”Refugees Welcome” sign, following the lynching of Eritrean refugee “Hevtom Zarhum” who was murdered after being falsely suspected as a perpetrator of an armed attack in the city Beer Sheva. None of his attackers faced any punishment.

Jerusalem’s “Welcome” sign turned to “Refugees Welcome”. Photo: Siha Mekomit Magazine

In this actions we managed to form a connection with a fans of Eintracht Frankfurt  with whom we later on faced our biggest activism challenge: the occupation and illegal annexation of East Jerusalem. It is a very delicate issue we are having trouble addressing. The club itself promotes many coexistence projects throughout the city, yet we aren’t fully supportive of them. On one hand, giving the children the opportunity to play football while promoting tolerance and acceptance is a wonderful thing, but on the other hand it creates a completely false image that is football washing the horrible condition of east Jerusalem and normalize its occupation.

In 2016 we were given the opportunity to hold a wall painting event with the friends from Frankfurt. As an enthusiast art supporter I had trouble rejecting the idea of the event although I knew it will be virtually impossible to create a project that will make a positive change. The aim was to create a collaborative wall painting between Jews and Arabs about a diverse football stand. Our fanzine motto is to paint Jerusalem red, and I was set on the endeavor to manage to create this project without normalizing the occupation. In retrospective I failed, but I find the story still important to share.

Photo: HaYatzia HaAdom

I was active at the time in forming and taking part of dialog groups in the old city of Jerusalem as well as being active at the village of Isawyia in northern Jerusalem. I began by trying to find Palestinian organization that will be interested in taking part in the project. I approached the observing committee of Isawyia and the community center, and received their blessing. It was perfect in my eyes, their football pitch needed some renovation and support, Israelis could join as long as it wasn’t the theme of it and the municipality had nothing to do with it.

Sadly, the refusal came from the German side, due to fear of the security situation at the village and it inaccessibility that is caused by the neglect of the municipality. We had to move it to somewhere else. We started surveying walls around Jerusalem that will be suitable for the scale of the project and we found one next to the football pitch of Beit Safafa. I managed to form a connection with the community center and fans of the local football club. It was a mixture I didn’t feel good about, because due to the location of the wall we had to get the approval of the municipality. Art wise the project was a huge success, we did manage to form something out of it, but those aren’t the things we need in order to change the status quo, and I must be sincere about it.

Later on that year we managed to create our biggest event so far, a football tournament with asylum seekers from Holot detention center, which was a prison that was built in order to make the lives of asylum seekers as miserable and unbearable as possible. The event was the first to cause us some issues with the management of the club. We were keen to make this event exactly to meet our standards; really fun for the refugees. In the end it was, and despite of the dispute we had with the club, it provided us with free entry tickets for the refugees to join the match after the tournament. It was a huge success. A year forward from that day, the detention center is now closed and the threat of forced illegal deportation is at least for now removed after a heroic campaign carried out against it. If there is no tournament because there is no Holot, we are ok with it.

This year we have been less active, and published only one magazine throughout the season. The seeds of new activism are growing, and we are still here to fight to build our community. Sadly it wasn’t the best year for us, we didn’t improve professionally as a club community wise as fans. In this season for the first time we faced a debate among the crowd whether we should allow the lifting of the Israeli flag at the stands. this debate has caused a rapture among the fans and other factors caused a decline in the activism related to football.

The decrease in activism is a dangerous path, it leads to domino effect that cause individuals to be active beyond their capacity, and it wears off and corrode communities of activists. I don’t wish to end this article with despair, though we are facing today the understanding of how we are dependent on the professional success of the club in order to fuel our activism and most importantly grow our circles of activists. People are more intolerant with involving politics with football because they fear it scares fans from joining the stands. The fear is growing because our stands had their worst year in terms of numbers of supporters since we started at the 5th league. Being in the second now, those are worrying news.

We are here, and if we are crazy enough to stay, for now it seems like we aren’t going to give up. We will see our red Jerusalem one day, Jerusalem of justice and equality, a fair place to live in, and although that day is far, I find hope that somewhere there are kids growing up in Jerusalem, knowing that there is a proud alternative to the racist way of Beitar.

Snubar Haqel


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