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Israel's President awards anti-racism prize to controversial soccer team

Fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team hold up a banner in Hebrew that reads “Beitar Pure Forever” during a match in Jerusalem on Jan. 26, 2012
AFP
The club was recognised for its youth work and the establishment of a forum to deal with incitement and racism

An Israeli football team known for its anti-Arabic chants and far-right fan base was awarded an anti-racism prize by the president on Monday after improving its behaviour.

Beitar Jerusalem, known for its often violent ultra-nationalist Jewish fans, was awarded the "ground-breaking achievement" at the Shield of Honour awards by President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem.

The club, which finished third in the Israeli Premier League last year, was recognised for its youth work and the establishment of a forum to deal with incitement and racism.

"I hope that Beitar will continue on the right and proper way, and your success will have a positive impact across the public," Rivlin said.

“We must persevere, to strive for victory everywhere, and yet to know that without fairness we won’t get anywhere," he continued. 

"A society plagued by racism, a society plagued by nationalism, a society that is plagued with xenophobia, is a society that will ultimately be unable to live with itself, and I am happy for the progress that has been made in football in Israel in the struggle against such phenomena.”

The club has a controversial history in Israel.

Its fans often sing anti-Palestinian chants at matches, including "Death to Arabs".

They have also chanted support for Yigal Amir, a far-right Jewish nationalist who assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Last year, 19 members of Beitar's ultra-nationalist La Familia fan group were charged with attempted murder, including of rival supporters.

Beitar is also the only club in the Israeli league that has never had an Arab Muslim player.

In 2013, some Beitar supporters were angered by the signing of two Muslim players from Chechnya, forcing the team to hire bodyguards to protect them.

But Uri Levy of the Jerusalem-based football website Babagol told AFP the fans had made strides to improve Beitar's "anti-Arab" reputation.

He said the club had "significantly reduced" the number of racist chants after a series of fines.

"If we take the international reputation of the club, of course it would sound weird for this club to get an anti-racism award," Levy said.

"But the truth is in the past year the fans have put in a lot of work and have sought to change."

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