When the Jerusalem police cracked down, the protests only accelerated. Eventually, Netanyahu’s backers craved their own show of force. They found it in a group of soccer fans.
That group, La Familia, is composed of infamously racist “ultras” who support the team Beitar Jerusalem. On their face, ultras are highly organized fans; at games, they lead raucous chants, unfurl massive banners and set off flares. In practice, they can operate as members of a street gang united by criminality, ideology or a little bit of both.
Beitar is the unofficial team of Israel’s political right. It is the only club in the Israeli Premier League to never have had an Arab player on its roster, and it is Netanyahu’s favorite team. So as the summer’s protests swept Jerusalem, Likud activist Amnon Ben Ami put the call out for the ultras on his popular Facebook page: “La Familia, you are the medicine against those anarchists.”
With the 2019-20 season over, La Familia was available and, apparently, spoiling for a fight. On several nights in July, La Familia members marauded through the masses at the anti-Netanyahu protests. Draped in Israeli flags, they sat on friends’ shoulders or happily shoved each other around makeshift mosh pits. “This is the land of Israel, this is the Jewish state, I hate all the Arabs,” they sang. “Where are the whores of antifa?” they shouted, then added a clap, clap, clap clap clap.
As they roamed, they lashed out violently, without knowing exactly whom they were targeting. Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson watched La Familia pursue a Palestinian man in a car, chasing him on foot and then hurling a molotov cocktail at his vehicle. Anti-Netanyahu protesters also reported being threatened by La Familia members flashing knives and asking, “Want to get stabbed?” According to another Haaretz reporter, La Familia beat up a man carrying a flag they believed was Palestinian but was in fact Rastafarian. One La Familia member was an Israel Defense Forces soldier, proudly carrying his army rifle in a blatant show of intimidation.
At first glance, it was a bizarre, pointless show of force. But to longtime La Familia watchers, it made perfect sense and could be traced to an incident earlier in the month.
On July 21, at an anti-Netanyahu protest outside the Knesset, a female demonstrator climbed a giant menorah statue and removed her shirt. A photo of her spread quickly across social media. Sophia Solomon, a doctoral student at Ben-Gurion University who conducted a three-year study of La Familia, contends that image energized the group’s members, who she says view themselves as defenders not of Netanyahu but of the sacred symbols of the state of Israel.
The protester on the menorah “had the guts,” Solomon says, “to go and hilool kodesh” — to violate the holy. So in response, La Familia raged.
A tradition of hate
Beitar Jerusalem was founded in 1936, before the creation of the state of Israel, as a youth club associated with the hardcore Zionist