Of all the business deals expected between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and of all the business possibilities that exist, the least anticipated deal of the century was perhaps that of a Muslim sheikh buying a 50 percent share of the Israeli soccer team known for its anti-Arab fans.
A segment of Beitar Jerusalem’s fans are notorious for upholding the “purity” of their team with only Jewish players. Beitar is the only club to never have fielded an Arab player. The vocal minority (at least we think they are the minority) protested when the coach wanted to sign two Muslim players from Chechnya. They also get into scuffles with other fans when hosting the Arab team from northern Israel and frequently chant, “Death to Arabs” to opposing players.
Again, their views do not reflect those of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. They mostly troubled youth.
So it came as a shock when the club leadership announced that they were in Dubai signing a deal that would give half ownership of the team to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, an Emirati businessman.
Fans immediately responded by spraying graffiti denouncing the deal on the stadium walls. But al Nayan and Israeli owner Moshe Hogeg plan to turn the team into a model of coexistence.
“We want to set an example to both nations that Jews and Muslims can work together,” Al Nahyan said.
In the end, money talks. Al Nahyan will be pumping $90 million into the team in the coming decade. And he also plans to open the door to all players, regardless of of their religion or ethnic background.
“I have heard a lot about the change taking place in the club and the way things are going, and I am happy to take part in that,” he said upon signing the deal.
Hogeg has been fighting the racist specter since his first day with the club, he said.
“It does not deter us, and our potential partner is aware of this threat and it is part of the reason we must act to show that Muslims and Jews can do very beautiful things together without fear,” he said.