An old football rivalry returns to Jerusalem

In Israel, politics is everything, and politics is first and foremost more sociology than ideology. And nowhere is this better seen then in sports. In the days of the Yishuv, the Zionist organisations sought to supply the public with a vast network of services. They formed sick funds, labour unions, schools, youth movements, banks, and even sports groups. Most of those organisations were purely party political, something which was not out of place in those years globally. 

The strongest and wealthiest of these organisations was the establishment’s labour movement – the largest political force in the land, as most of the populous was either labourers or agricultural workers in the “Kibbutz” program. The labour movement had it all: the largest union in the land, the “Histadrut”, the general association of workers; “klalit” the general sick fund of Hebrew workers in Israel; the largest bank (“the workers bank”); the largest publication; the largest youth organisations – the lot. 

The labour sports group is named “Hapoel”, “the worker”. To this day, it remains one of the largest sports unions in Israel, in all fields. Its red uniforms and flags decorate nearly every stadium in Israel. 

Two other unions are the apolitical “Maccabi” union, which was meant to be an “all Jewish” sports organisation, hosting the “Maccabiah Games”, a sort of “Jewish Olympics”. It is also one of the wealthiest unions in Israel. 

And last is the right-wing, national-liberal “Beitar” organisation. It is named after the revisionist’s youth movement, whose name is an acronym of “Brit Yosef Trumpeldor” and after the ancient Jewish city which stood against the Roman empire in the “Bar Kokhba revolt”. Being in opposition to the Zionist consensus, it is far less wealthy than its two counterparts. 

The rivalry between the labour and revisionist movements sits in all walks of life, and especially in football: nowhere more so than in Jerusalem itself. 

The city is divided between the two clubs, both on political and geographic lines: with the wealthy Hapoel, which is seen to represent the establishment, in the south; and Beitar, which is seen to represent the poor and disenfranchised, in the north. The hate between these two groups was and still is great.  

For example, a popular slogan in games is “Evel BaHistadrut” (woe in the Histadrut), which is chanted whenever Beitar scores a goal against the hated Hapoel. The “yellows” and the “reds” feud in a rivalry that splits the city itself and even families. They even have different seats in YMCA, with Hapoel fans sitting on the stone benches and Beitar ones sitting on the wooden benches. 

Until 1973, Hapoel ruled Jerusalem, winning derby after derby, but all of that changed in the 1970s, when in 1973 Beitar won the national cup. 

This was followed by the “political revolution” of 1977, when for the first time the right-wing parties won a general election, and then went on to take over the city’s football scene. This domination by Beitar continued into the 1980s, reducing Hapoel, the once strongest club in Jeruslaem, to embarrassing depths. 

The 1990s were Hapoel’s lowest point and Beitar’s brightest. They lost or tied almost every match with Beitar, its old home of Katamon stadium was demolished and they had to move into the victorious Beitar’s new home stadium. Worst of all a feud within the club itself lead to a split into two Hapoel clubs. As a result, there was no Jerusalem derby for twenty years. 

Meanwhile Beitar rose to legendary status, entering the top leagues, and becoming the Israeli right’s “flag group” – its crown jewel. Indeed, the club became so associated with the leading right-wing party, “Likud”, that its two top players took part in the party’s 1984 broadcasts.  

In the late 1980s the club was even run by the future President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, and future finance minister Ronni Bar-On. Most notably Netanyahu is also fan: it’s not an election year and not a championship game if the top figures in the right are not at Beitar’s games. 

Unfortunately, because of this rivalry, acts of violence between fans are commonplace, with radical fan groups on both sides provoking each other. In particular, over the years a stereotype of Beitar fans has evolved as violent hooligans. Best highlighting this is a sketch by Israel’s top comedy trio, where a fan of Beitar demands on behalf of the fans to determine “who will be the players, who will be the coaches, who will be the judges, what will be the result and what will be the weather, otherwise we will torch the club building”. 

In August 2021, a whole 20 years after the last derby, Jerusalem’s two giants finally met again on the grass of Teddy, with the two Hapoel groups regrouping after 20 years of division.

The old feud between Beitar and Hapoel has been reignited. 

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