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'Forever Pure' Documentary Shows Sports Isn't Always a Game
May 15, 2017  | By David Hinckley

The new PBS documentary Forever Pure details another depressing example of how sports can be weaponized.

Forever Pure, which airs Monday [5/15] at 10 p.m. ET, in the Independent Lens series, recounts the 2012-13 football (soccer) season for the Beitar, Jerusalem team in the Israeli league. It’s a noteworthy season because for the first time ever, Beitar fielded two Muslim players.

The experiment – sadly, rooted less in principle than in political calculation – failed on pretty much every level, and in the process exposed the way in which Beitar for some fans symbolized scornful rejection of any coexistence between Jews and Muslims.

Directed by Maya Zinshtein, Forever Pure acknowledges the hydra-headed complexity of Jewish-Arab relations in Jerusalem, which is Holy ground to both.

Its chilling focal point is the disheartening and often vicious way in which a core of fans instantly channeled fierce anger and hatred toward not just the Muslim players, but anyone in the Beitar family thought to have helped or even tolerated them.

The title Forever Pure comes from one of many Beitar fan slogans, in this case meaning “no Arabs ever.” The “purity” notion itself, of course, is further disquieting because of obvious historical events directed toward Jews.

Forever Pure captures hundreds of fans, the core group that sits around midfield behind the benches, chanting obscenities at the Muslim players and at Harush, the Beitar goaltender who as team captain had said at a press conference that the team welcomed all players.

The fans were also venomous toward team owner Arcadi Gaydamak, who ordered the signing of the players. (Flag burning at one match, top.)

Gaydamak (right) deserved the derision, though not for that reason. He admitted he didn’t like football, but had only bought the team to raise his profile so he could run for mayor of Jerusalem. He called the team a “propaganda tool.”

Several years later, after being trounced in the mayoral race, he went to prison in France for money laundering.

And, oh, Forever Pure also reminds that he signed the Muslim players to boost his political capital back in Chechnya. Marketed as a noble experiment in racial reconciliation, the results were as poisoned as the intent.

Attendance plummeted, and fan hostility fueled so much tension on the team itself that a previously promising season became a nightmare. It was worse for the Muslim players. The referee’s whistle had barely ended the last game when they were on a plane back home to Chechnya, with no backward glances.

Zinshtein’s focal point in this morass is what the film bluntly calls the racism of the Beitar fans. She traces this to the club’s long-established reputation as the home team of anti-Arab conservatives like the La Familia group, and suggests that bond defines the team better than anything it has ever done on the field.

While she finds the bond deeply disturbing, for good reasons, nothing in Forever Pure seems to suggest the fan bonds with Beitar are any fiercer than the bonds millions of other fans around the world have with their favorite teams.

The difference is that in most cases, their allegiance isn’t interwoven with their socio-political beliefs – although Forever Pure also shows footage of fans from a rival Arab team chanting anti-Semitic slogans.

It’s depressing in both cases, the same way it was depressing when Hitler used the 1936 Olympics as a showcase for so-called Aryan superiority and American baseball argued for years that there was no place for colored players. 

It’s not realistic to think sports could never cross social or political lines. It’s also true that a minority of louts, even a small minority like the one that taunted Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles in Boston last week, can make the rest of the crowd seem guilty.

But the total rejection of basic civility and decency by a significant number of Beitar fans and even players is worth having on the record.

We need to understand our worst before we can aim for our best. 


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