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 Beitar movement. It fielded players who were also members of Etzel, an infamous pre-state militia that carried out terrorist attacks and massacres on the local Arab population. “The tradition of extreme views against the Arab population was always there,” Solomon has said. “It’s innate.”
Israel’s traditional power structures have historically been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, meaning Jews with origins in Europe. Beitar is known as the club for Mizrahi Jews, whose origins are in the Arab world. In 2018, Knesset member Miri Regev, a prominent defender of Mizrahi interests, attended a Beitar game, grinning for the cameras as fans around her repeated the anti-Arab chant, “May your village be burned.” Despite that kind of overt political support, and despite Beitar being one of the Israeli Premier League’s traditional powerhouses, the team’s fans see themselves as eternal underdogs.
La Familia, created in 2005, is the Beitar fandom’s racist hardcore. On its inflammatory Facebook page, it has 38,000 members. Solomon says the number of active La Familia members probably is a few thousand but “even the police doesn’t know” the exact number.
A few years ago, a national raid led to arrests of 19 La Familia members on charges ranging from racist acts to attempted murder. “It’s a semi-anarchist group,” Solomon says, with a loose structure: an “inner ring” of 30-something decision-makers and an “outer ring” of 16- and 17-year-old “executors” who take to the streets. By their late thirties, she says, members age out: “You retire from violence.”
In 2013, Beitar Jerusalem tried, in a roundabout way, to signal the end of its racist boycott of Arab players by signing two young Muslim players. The players weren’t Arabs — they were from Chechnya — but La Familia still pounced. At a game, members held up a sign reading “Beitar: Forever Pure”; later, they set a fire in Beitar’s trophy room. Beitar’s general manager, a former club legend named Itzik Kornfein, insisted on holding a hard line against La Familia, to try to break its hold over the club. But by the next season, the Chechens were gone. Kornfein followed not long after.
Alon Burstein is a former Beitar fan who abandoned his allegiance after 2013. By not insisting that the Chechens stay, “the club signaled to La Familia, ‘We don’t want to fight you,’ ” he says. “The fans chanting racism, making our society so much worse — it was hard for me to be happy with them. But they didn’t drive me away. It was the club giving up that broke my heart.”
What matters to ultras
The term ultras, coined in Italy in the late 1960s, has come to encompass a wide spectrum of highly organized fan groups. Ultras get in clashes with the police or with the ultras of opposing clubs. They also cheer and curse and sing. All over the world, what they have in common is their tightknit identities; even if they have families or day jobs, they’re more likely to define themselves by their allegiances as ultras. They are, above all, united.
Which means the idea of a group of soccer fans acting as a cohesive protest unit isn’t as strange as it might first seem. “You’ve got hundreds, sometimes thousands of well-organized men who know how to fight,” says James Montague, the author of “1312: Among The Ultras.” “They do it week in, week out at football matches. They know what to do with tear gas.”
Historically, ultras have been anti-authority. The 1312 in the book’s title is the alphabet number code for ACAB, or All Cops Are Bastards. “It was a universal thing that ultras believed in,” Montague says. “ ‘We’re against the police; we’re against the government.’ ”
Recent history is mostly full of examples of ultras supporting street actions against their governments. Egypt during the Arab Spring, Ukraine during its 2014 uprising, Turkey during the Gezi Park protests: All saw the phenomenon of soccer fans taking to the streets to ally with protesters.
But as populist parties have come to power in Central and Eastern Europe, they have found common cause with ultras happy to demonize immigrants, minorities and LGBTQ communities. Far-right ultras, once seen as shameful fringe groups, now reflect their governments’ sloganeering. “It wasn’t their world 20 years ago,” Montague says. “It’s their world now.”
Pavel Klymenko, head of policy at Fare Network, an organization opposing discrimination in soccer, says that when ultras are acting on behalf of the interests of a government, there are two primary causes.
The first is “clientelistic”: Ultras can become willing “thugs for hire by the regime against the opposition,” as has happened in Russia and the Balkans. While it’s not inconceivable that La Familia members were somehow compensated to appear as counterprotesters, there has been no evidence to support that claim.
The second, as with La Familia, is ideological. The ultras are “supporting a cause that resonates” and happens to be “in line with government policy.” In 2019, in Bialystok, Poland, a gay pride parade was violently attacked by ultras of the club Jagiellonia Bialystok. Klymenko says their actions effectively amplified the ruling Law and Justice party’s attacks on the LGBTQ community; at a later match, Jagiellonia Bialystok supporters went so far as to “literally use the government’s imagery and talking points in their banners.”
Ultimately, La Familia’s presence did nothing to dampen the mood of the anti-Netanyahu protests. And the ultras, for now anyway, seem to have lost interest. Since their appearances at the end of July, there have been no new reported sightings of La Familia.
There have also been no repercussions for the group. Netanyahu has repeatedly portrayed the demonstrators calling for his resignation as lawless anarchists, but he has not addressed La Familia’s bloody provocations. In early October, under the cover of increased coronavirus restrictions, the Knesset passed a law restricting protesters’ ability to gather in public.
The Israeli Premier League returned for its 2020-21 season in late August, without fans for now. Some members of La Familia have been getting their fix by gathering outside of closed-door matches. “Their addiction is going once a week to the stadium,” Solomon says. “They’re trying to do some stuff to not lose their minds.”
When the stadiums do reopen, Burstein, the former Beitar fan, fears the events of the summer of 2020 will, like with the Chechens in 2013, serve to make La Familia only more powerful. “If we’re ever allowed in the stadiums again, we’re going to see a turn for the worse,” Burstein says. “They care enough about their agenda to go beat up protesters. They carry this in their hearts.”