“La Familia” is a group of fans that supports Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel’s most popular football clubs. The quasi-criminal, virulently anti-Arab group has fashioned themselves into political street fighters for the Israeli far right.

Members of “La Familia,” the far-right fan group of the Israeli Beitar Jerusalem football club, on December 11, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP via Getty Images)

Four days after the October 7 attacks in southern Israel, Dr Yoram Klein was at work at Tel Aviv’s Tel HaShomer hospital. During the Hamas-led incursion, armed militants killed 1,200 Israelis and took 240 hostage. Many of the injured survivors were being treated at Tel HaShomer, where Klein leads the hospital’s trauma department. That afternoon, a mob appeared.

They were soccer fans. They support Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel’s most popular clubs. They arrived at the hospital on motorcycles. “Young people, dressed in black, on motorcycles,” Klein says. “People might confuse them for Hamas!”

The supporters had heard a rumor that an injured Hamas operative was being treated at Tel HaShomer. That wasn’t true. It didn’t matter. The group, which calls themselves La Familia, “invaded the hospital,” Klein says, and began stomping through Tel HaShomer, floor by floor, demanding the illusory patient be turned over.

A fight broke out at the entrance to the emergency room. Hospital staff pleaded fruitlessly with La Familia to stop disrupting treatment. In return, La Familia jeered and marched and chanted. First it was “Death to the terrorists,” Klein says, then “Death to Arabs,” and then “Death to the leftists.”

La Familia is a fan group in the style of the original Italian soccer ultras: diehard supporters who lead chants and carry banners in stadiums throughout Europe. It’s not rare for ultras to align themselves with political ideologies; in their organizational unity and their natural brashness, they possess a potency beyond their identity as soccer fans. Since forming in 2005, La Familia — quasi-criminal, virulently anti-Arab — have fashioned themselves into something very specific: political street fighters for the Israeli far right.

During the wave of antigovernment protests that have swept Israel on and off since at least 2020, La Familia has frequently appeared as a counter-ballast to shout down and assault activists and journalists. Seeking confrontation, they roam and chant things like “Muhammad is dead” and “This is the Jewish state, I hate all the Arabs,” and “Where are the whores of antifa?” One government minister has proposed declaring them a terrorist organization.

La Familia — quasi-criminal, virulently anti-Arab — have fashioned themselves into something very specific: political street fighters for the Israeli far right.

Beitar Jerusalem has a local rival in the city’s historic left-wing team, Hapoel Jerusalem. While professional sports teams are almost exclusively owned by the ultra-wealthy, Hapoel is fully fan-owned. The club’s stated beliefs: coexistence and cross-Jerusalem solidarity between Muslims and Jews. As one Hapoel supporter told me, its fans aspire to be La Familia’s “antithesis.”

Over the past two months, Israeli air strikes in response to the October 7 attacks have decimated Gaza and killed nearly 18,000 people. The backdrop to that devastation is the political reality of modern Israel, in which a far-right government claims it is waging an existential battle while ignoring international condemnation of their mass killing of civilians.

One way that political reality can be read is through the Hapoel/Beitar rivalry: while Hapoel’s supporters are a peaceful fringe, the radical worldview crudely espoused by La Familia has become increasingly mainstream. Since October 7, that schism has manifested in extreme new ways — and has pointed toward what a future Israel may yet become.

One of the people taken hostage on October 7 is a twenty-three-year-old Israeli American named Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who lost his left arm during the Hamas-led attacks. He’s part of Brigade Malcha, a raucous Hapoel fan group who operate in near-direct contrast to La Familia. In one photo of Goldberg-Polin at a Hapoel game widely circulated since he was kidnapped, he waves a Hapoel flag with his shirt off and looks ready to eagerly leap a parapet.

“When we saw the face on [the news],” says Hapoel board member Tal Ben Ezra, “we knew exactly — that’s Hersh. We don’t recognize him just as a fan. He’s our friend. He’s our family member. This is a connection forever. We love him. He loves us.”

 

“We Don’t Want Muslims on the Team”

Beitar Jerusalem was formed in 1936, as part of the more radical Zionist camp active in British-controlled Palestine before the creation of the State of Israel. Its supporters’ group, La Familia, only came about in 2005 but quickly and violently entered the national conversation. They represent a minority of Beitar’s overall fanbase but, in the years after their formation, the stories of their alleged crimes have become manifold: ax attacks, armed robberies, riots.

In 2013, Beitar’s management announced they’d signed two players from Chechnya, the formerly war-torn republic in southern Russia. In response, La Familia members lit the trophy room at Beitar’s headquarters on fire. Why? The new players were Muslims.

The next Beitar game after the arson attack was against Bnei Sakhnin, a storied Arab-Israeli club, from the northern Israeli city of Sakhnin. I was in the crowd that night. Over seven hundred officers and security personnel were mobilized. News camera klieg lights blazed. Seemingly every Beitar supporter, draped in the club’s unmissable black-and-yellow colors or the blue-and-white of the flag of Israel, was wildly gesticulating. Car horns bled into staticky walkie-talkie’d police commands. Pro-peace activists gave polite speeches and, in turn, received torrents of abuse.

I was reporting on the story for Grantland. “It won’t last. One week, two week — the Chechens will be gone,” Elad, a Beitar fan, told me.

But what if they’re good? I asked.

“We don’t want Muslims on the team,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how they play.”

Elad was right. The Chechens had to be kept under 24/7 security. At games, the harassment was endless. By the next season, both young players had happily gotten the hell out of Israel.

“[La Familia] can determine who is and who is not going to play at Beitar,” says Sophia Solomon, a sociological researcher at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University who has studied the group. “A decade later, we still haven’t seen an Arab player at Beitar.”

“A Sane Place”

Hersh Goldberg-Polin was just about to turn eight years old when his family moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Jerusalem. Soon after they arrived, friends of the family took them to a soccer game. “We were Americans — we knew nothing,” his mother Rachel Goldberg recalls. The friends’ teenage sons wrapped a team scarf around Hersh and pulled him into the supporters stand, where he never sat down.

Young Goldberg-Polin fell hard for Hapoel. As a teenager, he’d travel the country going to away games. When his mother objected to all that roaming around, he would tell her, “You don’t understand, this is the most important game of the season,” and she’d always give in. He would take long round-trip bus trips with other Hapoel fans and make it home for a few hours of sleep before heading to class. At Hapoel, Goldberg-Polin became known for singing loud and for being shirtless as regularly as possible.

“As a teen, he started to come into his own, in terms of his nonsophisticated political awareness of the world,” Goldberg says. “He was always teased for being a lover of peace, a crunchy granola dreamer.” His earnest, inchoate beliefs were embodied in Hapoel.

Initially, Goldberg worried about her son’s love of Hapoel, all that time devoted to a sports team. Years into that obsession, though, she began to see Hapoel, she says, as “a social justice club that happened to have been attached to a soccer team.”

This is what the family has pieced together from October 7: As the Hamas-led forces attacked an open-air music festival Goldberg-Polin was attending, he sought shelter in a bunker. When assailants threw in grenades, he was gravely wounded. He lost his left, dominant, arm. He tied his own tourniquet. Then he was put on the back of a pick-up truck and taken hostage.

Amid the country’s dominant culture, Hapoel’s push for coexistence is a blip. In 2022, Israel voted into power the most right-wing coalition in its history.

As part of the family’s outreach to raise awareness after October 7, they’ve circulated photos of Goldberg-Polin’s room. It’s covered in the red of Hapoel Jerusalem, in floor-to-ceiling stickers of Che Guevera and Tupac and a swastika being punched, and in earnest sloganeering supporting refugees. A hand-made poster of the Dome of the Rock on top of the Wailing Wall reads, in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, “Jerusalem is for everyone.” It’s the physical encapsulation of, as Goldberg put it, her son’s endearingly “nonsophisticated” yearning for peace.

Hapoel Jerusalem was founded in 1926, ten years before Beitar, in affiliation with the Histadrut, Israel’s once-all-powerful trade union. Hapoel is Hebrew for “the laborer.” The team’s crest features the hammer and the sickle. Judging by sheer number of fans, Hapoel Jerusalem is not one of the country’s major clubs, but its supporters are devoted.

In 2007, after years of poor performance and financial mismanagement by Hapoel’s owners, a group of its fans revolted and established a whole new team they called Hapoel Katamon.

As in Europe, professional soccer in Israel operates on a pyramid structure. The leagues are interconnected; depending on how you play in any given season, you can be promoted to a better league or relegated down to a worse one.

Hapoel Katamon began life at the bottom tier, the fifth. Games were played in the middle of desert villages, with donkeys outnumbering spectators. Over the next decade, Katamon clawed its way back up the pyramid, one promotion at a time. Meanwhile, the original club’s finances kept sinking until they hit bankruptcy in 2019. Katamon bought out the distressed assets and took over the history of Hapoel Jerusalem.

Generally, the owners of sports teams are titans of industry, venture capital billionairesheirs to generational fortunes, and, increasingly, massive petrostate sovereign wealth funds. (For its part, Beitar has had a succession of colorful and bizarre owners. Recently that meant Moshe Hogeg, both an alleged crypto fraudster and alleged sex trafficker. The club’s current owner, sushi restaurant entrepreneur Barak Abramov, was once accused of money laundering for organized crime.) In the modern era, owners operate in total control, and fans simply give them money.

But Hapoel is fully controlled by its supporters. For around $400 a year, fans get a season ticket and the right to vote in elections for the club’s board of directors, who in turn supervise the CEO. That means Hapoel fans have direct oversight over the entirety of the operations of their club.

Hapoel actively seeks to integrate Arabic and Jewish fans through community endeavors that bring boys and girls from throughout Jerusalem’s many socioeconomic enclaves together for soccer games and language sharing. A few years back, Goldberg-Polin was involved in organizing a soccer tournament as a fun day out for detained asylum seekers from Sudan; it was held during the refugees’ prison furlough.

Once, a group of like-minded German soccer fans came to Jerusalem and painted a peace mural with Hapoel supporters and residents of a nearby Arab village. Goldberg-Polin was the conduit, speaking Hebrew with the Arabic kids, speaking English with the German kids.

Hapoel’s political leanings or ambitions shouldn’t be overstated. They aren’t fighting the occupation or trying to stop the assault on Gaza. They are effectively a community project, operating within their limited sphere of influence. Mostly that means Teddy Stadium, where Hapoel plays. Says Ben Ezra, “We are trying to be, how should I put it . . . shafooi . . . sane . . . a sane place for people to watch football.”

Beitar is one of Israel’s most popular teams. (According to the club, around seventy Beitar fans were killed in the October 7 attacks.) In recent history, Hapoel has been a minnow. But the two clubs’ rivalry is entrenched by political divisions first formed decades ago and enhanced by their proximity: they even share Teddy Stadium. In 2022, after eons of losses and of lower-division obscurity, Hapoel beat Beitar for the first time in thirty-one years.

Amid the country’s dominant culture, Hapoel’s push for coexistence is a blip. In 2022, Israel voted into power the most right-wing coalition in its history. That coalition formed, at least tacitly, with the support of the United States, which continues to deliver nearly $4 billion in annual unconditional aid to Israel. That coalition then pushed laws to neuter the Israeli Supreme Court, in a move that would remove one of the state’s last bulwark against the coalition’s radical pro-settlement, anti-Arab policies.

Since October 7, racism against Arabs in Israel has surged, making Hapoel’s objectives all that more quixotic. “We are aware of the whole political situation,” Ben Ezra says, “but nothing is gonna move us from what we believe is right. People are grieving, yet we have to believe in peace. We have to believe that we need to love each other as human beings. We are gonna stand by that as long as we can.” He laughs uneasily. “Yeah, we’re gonna stick to that.”

“You Are the Medicine Against Those Anarchists”

Itamar Ben-Gvir is member of the ruling coalition representing the political party Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power. A disciple of Kahanism, an ultranationalist ideology that advocates for mass deportation of Palestinians, he is the country’s minister of national security. And he is a longtime supporter of Beitar Jerusalem.

Jewish inequality in Israel is traditionally defined as a split between Ashkenazi Jews, those with roots in Europe — the privileged population — and Mizrahi Jews, those with roots in the Arab world. Beitar is known as the club for Mizrahi Jews and, by extension, the club for the working man, the common man. Ben-Gvir, who comes from an Iraqi Jewish family, leans on his Beitar fandom to prop up his political reputation: he goes to Teddy and takes selfies while fans chant their anti-Arab slogans and he burnishes his populist cred.

Over the last few years, Israel has seen mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition in response to everything from Netanyahu’s bungling policies during the COVID-19 pandemic to his coalition’s attempt to nullify the Supreme Court.

In response, the right wing has repeatedly called on social media for La Familia to take to the streets. Sometimes, the messages are overt: “La Familia, you are the medicine against those anarchists.” Sometimes they’re vague: “Go out and return the voice to the people.”

The connection between the right wing and La Familia is implicit and symbiotic, says Solomon, the Ben-Gurion University researcher. “Without calling them by name,” she says, the right-wing camp can “activate their actions.” In one 2023 protest, there, amid the scrums on the streets — where protesters and Arab bystanders were assaulted alike — Ben-Gvir showed up to cheer on members of La Familia, and to be cheered right back.

Around the same time, Ben-Gvir sat for a contentious news interview. Facing criticism for his association with La Familia, Ben-Gvir snapped. “In La Familia, there are officers in the army, and there are people who serve and who are moral and have high values,” he said. “Please stop doing character assassination for the entire world.”

The obvious echo of Donald Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment about the white supremacist Charlottesville riot was probably unintentional. But for what it’s worth: when Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Beitar briefly explored changing its name to Beitar “Trump” Jerusalem.

Since the October 7 attacks, Ben-Gvir has been operating in overdrive with very little pushback. In his capacity as the minister of national security, he’s recklessly expedited gun permitting in order to get thousands of weapons into the hands of his like-minded constituents. Critics say he’s not only encouraging but arming would-be anti-Arab vigilantes. Since George H. W. Bush in 1991, US presidents have largely rejected placing any conditions on the delivery of aid to Israel. But Ben-Gvir’s actions were so flagrant, they nearly managed to pause a delivery of American arms.

The Biden administration has also expressed alarm at the rising violence perpetrated by settlers in the West Bank against Palestinians since October 7. In response, the State Department announced a ban on US visas for violent settlers. Considering President Joe Biden is still pushing for a new $14 billion aid package to Israel, the ban is a dramatic underuse of US influence. Also, the idea that Israeli settlers will curb violence out of fear of not being able to visit, say, Milwaukee, feels almost comically far-fetched. (And for what it’s worth, many of those violent settlers won’t need visas, as they already have American passports.) All the while, Ben-Gvir is still handing out guns as fast as he can.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 17,700 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, with the majority being women and children. +972 Magazine’s Yuval Abraham was told by an intelligence source that, with Israeli air strikes, “Nothing happens by accident. When a three-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided . . . that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target.”

In November, a weeklong pause was held during which Israel released 240 prisoners and Hamas released 105 hostages. The majority of the people released by Israel had not been convicted of a crime. Over half were being tried in Israel’s military court system, which has a 99-percent conviction rate, and where detainees can be held indefinitely without trial. As the Palestinian detainees released in the hostage exchange were making their way home to families that some hadn’t seen in years, Ben-Gvir did what he could to ban their public celebrations of joy.

Along with their dismissal of the lives and rights of Palestinians, many in Ben-Gvir’s right-wing camp have also displayed a ruthless attitude toward the Israeli hostages. One minister suggested the complete annihilation of Gaza and explicitly stated he would be ok with sacrificing the lives of the hostages held there in order to achieve that goal.

One group of West Bank settlers, a strong base of support for Ben-Gvir, have argued against any potential hostage deal, even though their own sons are among those being held. As one of the parents, Tzvika Mor, said in an October 16 radio interview, “It’s our children, and we are saying to the Jewish people that taking care of our children shouldn’t come at the expense of the war.”

As the November truce ticked along, there was hope of extensions and further prisoner swaps. In response, Ben-Gvir released a statement: “Stopping the war = breaking apart the government.” Ben-Gvir was so hellbent on more war that he was threatening to dismantle his own ruling coalition.

On December 1, the pause ended, and the bombings resumed. Most of the hostages released were women and children. More than a hundred hostages remain. That includes Goldberg-Polin.

“You and I are talking right now, and I seem probably pretty functional and normal,” his mother Rachel told me. “But it takes all of my reserves to do it. We’re all on this planet of agony, waiting on the head of a pin.”

“He Would Not Want Revenge”

Since Oct. 7, La Familia’s anti-Arab ethos has pinged around the country in ways both big and small. Recently, a string of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers have posted social media footage of themselves brazenly beating and humiliating Palestinians. In one video, an IDF soldier insists his target say “Yalla Beitar” — let’s go Beitar.

During the 2023 protests, one man held up a sign in the black and yellow of Beitar that read “Transfer,” meaning expel Israel’s Arab population out of the country. Those values are now actively reflected by the political mainstream: in November, two Israeli politicians wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal advocating that Gazans voluntarily leave for countries in the West.

Israel’s right wing has long believed in security through extreme militancy. But this ruling coalition oversaw one of Israel’s greatest-ever security failures. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that an IDF intelligence officer repeatedly communicated “chilling” warnings to her superiors of an imminent Hamas attack, but was ignored. The New York Times has reported the IDF possessed a copy of Hamas’s actual plan of attack, but dismissed it as unfeasible.

Israel’s right wing has long believed in security through extreme militancy. But this ruling coalition oversaw one of Israel’s greatest-ever security failures.

Recounting the manner in which Hamas entered Israel and her kibbutz, the eighty-five-year-old released hostage Yocheved Lifshitz said, “They blew up the electronic fence, that special fence that cost 2.5 billion dollars to build but didn’t help with anything.”

Neria Smith, thirty-five, is a Hapoel fan. He has a lot of family members that live near the Gaza border. On Oct. 7, his aunt and uncle were killed at home in their kibbutz. Seven other members of his extended family were held in Gaza for fifty days before recently being released in the prisoner exchange. His friend Goldberg-Polin is still being held.

Smith has known Goldberg-Polin since he was a preteen, when they met as members of Brigade Malcha, the diehard Hapoel supporters group. Smith says he’s always seen Goldberg-Polin as a little brother. “The hostages’ lives are of utmost importance to us,” Smith says. “We want them to be returned before any military action is continued.”

Many families of those who were killed in the Hamas attack have advocated for peace, even using their eulogies to painfully plead for it. They say things like “Do not write my father’s name on a shell” and “Do not use our death and our pain to bring the death and pain of other people and other families.”

Hapoel Jerusalem as a club isn’t opposing the war; many of Hapoel’s players and fans surely support it. But Smith, personally, echoes the sentiments above and rejects vengeance. “I want this war to stop,” he says:

I don’t believe in innocent civilians from Gaza being killed. I don’t believe that this serves the Israeli people or us as a country. My close friends, from Hapoel, we want this to be over. We want civilians on both sides to stop getting hurt and killed.

Smith says that Goldberg-Polin, too, “would want peace — I believe that this is Hersh’s message. He would not want revenge.”

Goldberg-Polin’s mother, Rachel Goldberg, is amused when thinking about the outsize role Hapoel Jerusalem has had in her life. The truth is, she doesn’t really like soccer. She finds it, she stage-whispers, “boring.” She jokes that maybe all those endless games her son traveled to on school nights are keeping him calm: “The fact that you could sit there for two hours and the score is zero-one? That’s actually a practice of Zen patience. Maybe it’s helping him.”

Goldberg-Polin loves playing soccer too, his mother says. He loves being the goalkeeper. “He’s probably really bummed out,” Goldberg says. “A one handed-goalie? But I’m thinking — when he gets back, we’ll get him, like, a gigantic bionic arm. That left hand is gonna be even bigger than it should actually be. And then he’ll be an even better goalie.”

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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