In a recent featured story, Lever reporter Amos Barshad illustrated the fraught political situation in Israel by exploring a local soccer rivalry between an idealistic fan-owned club and a powerhouse team’s racist hooligans. The results are illuminating, enraging, and at times emotionally gutting. 

Sports teams, and the passions and divisions they inspire, offer a window into the wider world. To explore this phenomenon and how a soccer rivalry can help us understand the Israel-Hamas conflict, Barshad sat down with celebrated sports journalist Pablo Torre on his award-winning podcast, Pablo Torre Finds Out. The episode is well worth a listen:

Here’s an abridged transcript of the episode, which includes an interview with Rachel Goldberg, mother of an idealistic soccer fan, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Pablo Torre: Amos Barshad, thank you for helping us report a story that is unlike any other story we have done on this show. I was hesitant to do this episode, not because I didn’t think it was genuinely fascinating, but because I’m always mindful of the ways in which sports outlets want to shoehorn sports into a serious news story. And sometimes it just feels both flimsy and forced in terms of the connection that they’re drawing. 

This one, though, does not feel that way to me. I’ve reported on the way that sports and politics interact for a long time. And for me, as someone trying to understand the news, I’ve always felt like it’s a way to get closer to the way people actually interact with the news. 

I want to set the scene here. When did you realize that the war between Israel and Hamas, which started with the terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7, when did you realize that it was actually a sports story?

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Amos Barshad: It was a few days after the attack that I saw a video clip of a group of soccer fans running through a hospital in Tel Aviv. They are supporters of this team, Beitar Jerusalem. Their supporters group is called La Familia, and there’s a minister that has in the past suggested declaring them a terrorist organization for various reasons. 

What happened was they had basically come across a rumor that a Hamas fighter was being treated at this hospital in Tel Aviv, and they decided to take matters into their own hands.

I spoke to a doctor, Yoram Klein, who works at the hospital in Tel Aviv.

Yoram Klein (interview excerpt): They stormed the hospital on bikes. Young people dressed in black on motorcycles. People might confuse them for Hamas. At the time, there was no Hamas in the hospital. So they actually invaded the hospital and went from floor to floor to see if there were any terrorists, and there were none. And the shouting went quickly from “Death to the terrorists” quickly to, within a minute, “Death to Arabs,” and within seconds, “Death to left-wing people, Jews.”

Pablo: Can you explain what Beitar Jerusalem is like, where they fit into the political, cultural landscape in Israel? 

Amos: This is the Israeli Domestic Soccer League and top-flight league that we’re talking about, which is a relatively minor league. Beitar Jerusalem is one of the traditional powerhouses of the league, and it is also known as the team of the right wing.

Pablo: I want to actually understand how extreme this faction is. Why are they called La Familia?

Amos: I’m sure we’ve all kind of seen footage of the [European] ultras who are bringing the flares, bringing the banners, leading the chants and the drums, who are often associated with Italy and Spain. So they pick this name that kind of sounds to them like Italian. 

Their politics are very, very clear. There are other groups in World Soccer that flirt with the far right or borrow symbols.These guys aren’t flirting. They’re running around chanting, “Death to the Arabs. This is the Jewish state. I hate all the Arabs.” There’s no confusion. 

To this date, there has not been an Arab player on Beitar. So they’re actually dictating who can play and who can’t. It’s not a subtle thing or in-the-background kind of influence. 

Pablo: And so that influence, how has that functioned at a time when the political administration of the State of Israel has also been leaning right wing? 

Amos: There’s an implicit connection between certain elements of the right-wing coalition and La Familia. You know, to me, La Familia have increasingly acted as the street fighters for the right wing. 

There’s been many protests movements in the last few years in Israel, most recently there was a weekly protest movement against an attempt by the ruling right-wing coalition to effectively neuter the Israeli Supreme Court. La Familia acted as a counterbalance. They were called upon to come out and be the counter to protesters. Mostly that involved again chanting horrific things like “Death to Arabs.” And some funny things like, “Where are the whores of Antifa?”

Pablo: You’re describing a scene in which this soccer fan base has been conscripted to fight an explicitly political war.

Amos: Yeah. And they love it. This puts them centrally in the conversation and at the same time, the right wing feels like they have support in the street. But there are clear indications that La Familia is seen as kind of a strike force or a little militia. Usually when they come out to the street, there’s violence. Protesters are injured, Arab bystanders are injured. 

The person that is central to the story currently is the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir. He’s come in with this ruling right-wing coalition, he represents the most radical strain of Jewish supremacy. His background is a defense lawyer for Jewish extremists. He believes in expanding the settler movement. In public, he represents the extremist nature of this ruling coalition. And he is a self-described Beitar fan, of course. 

Pablo: So he has seen soccer be a figurative but also potentially a physical cudgel to do what to his enemies? 

Amos: He has used it to become a populist figure, to make himself seem like a man of the people. In the old days, politicians used to go to the market in Jerusalem, shake hands and kiss babies and do all that kind of stuff. And in the last few decades, Teddy stadium has become the center, you go there and you put the scarf on and the Beitar supporters chant their anti-Arab chants. And with Ben-Gvir they’re taking selfies. 

It’s a familiar scene, and it’s an effective scene. And it allows him to not even have to say the horrible things. The people around him are saying horrible things.

Pablo: And just to be very clear about this, their enemy as they see it is who?

Amos: Their cross-city rival is called Hapoel Jerusalem. Hapoel is not historically a big club, but the fans are super devoted, a small but passionate fan base. The interesting thing about them is that they are explicitly a club that fights for coexistence, Arab-Jewish solidarity. It’s a very, very different mentality,they actually share a stadium. And Hapoel is actually fan-owned.

Pablo: When you think of their fan base, is there a particular person that comes to mind?

Amos: I think about a fan named Hersh Goldberg-Polin. He’s 23, and he has supported them since he was a preteen. He grew up in the U.S. until he was seven. He moved to Jerusalem t and fell in love with this Israeli Jerusalem soccer culture, this team Hapoel.

His friends describe him as super, super passionate, always standing and singing. And he is a part of a supportive group that you could look at as kind of a parallel to La Familia. These are the guys who are the hardcore for Hapoel.

I spoke to one of his friends in the supporters group, whose name is Neria Smith.

Neria Smith (interview excerpt): We don’t sit down and watch the game and eat sunflower seeds or something like other fans. We sing and we clap and we dance and we try to affect the game in our own way.

Amos: Very explicitly, they believe in peace, coexistence, and solidarity. They love this team, that’s what brings them together. And then within that, they go forward with all kinds of charitable acts.

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Pablo: If La Familia is over there, setting things on fire and hurting people, what are Hersh and his friends doing?

Amos: They held a tournament for people from Sudan who were effectively seeking asylum in Israel. So this group organized a day where they bussed them to Jerusalem, had Sudanese food and music, musicians, actual performances. They held a tournament after a Jewish-Arab school was torched in 2014 by a suspected Jewish extremist, they held up a banner in the stadium in support of the school. 

They’re not an anti-occupation entity. They don’t have solutions to the conflict. They’re trying to focus on creating positivity in Jerusalem, and just trying to control what they can. 

So Hersh, within that context, is kind of a classic Hapoel fan, travels to away games on these bus rides, that bring him back home in the middle of the night. I talked to his mom, Rachel, and she told me about how he would finesse this with her.

Rachel Goldberg (interview excerpt): Oh my gosh, we were so American. He’d be in high school and he’d say, “I’ve got to go to Nahariya tonight.” Now, on the bus that’s like four hours from our house. This is part of the beauty of when you’re an immigrant, you can tell your parents anything, and they actually believe you.

Amos: She referred to him as a teenager coming into what she said was “non-sophisticated political awareness,” which I think is a really nice phrase. And so he believes in something that he can’t quite understand. He finds this club and it’s this perfect thing for him to just pour all his heart into. He becomes this really well-known fan. And everyone describes him as cheery, happy, and always shirtless. 

Pablo: I want to bring us into the day that this war started, October 7, because there were various attacks by Hamas along the border with Gaza. Where was Hersh in all of that?

Amos: Hersh was at a music festival, the Supernova Festival, that became the site of a mass shooting.

Pablo: How do Hersh’s friends hear about this in real time, as all this is unfolding?

Amos: Neria, his friend, told me that in the chaos of that day, everyone from the fan group and related pals were exchanging text messages.

Neria (interview excerpt): It just started circulating. There was frantic messaging back and forth that Hersh is there, he’s at the party. And we realized that his family hasn’t heard from him, and this is real, this is happening.

He was hiding in a roadside bomb shelter with some 30 other people and terrorists came and they shot into it. It’s a very tight space, and they threw something like eight or nine grenades in. 

His best friend, his name is Aner Shapira. He throws seven of the eight grenades that the terrorists throw into the bomb shelter and he saved countless lives. And then in the end, the eighth exploded and killed him. He was also a fan and he was Hersh’s best friend, so we also remember him.

Pablo: We should say here that Hersh was severely injured by this grenade attack in this bunker, which we know in part because of cell phone video, first obtained by CNN, which shows Hersh being loaded into a truck by gunmen and then being driven off to captivity. 

That video is the last visual proof that Hersh’s mom Rachel has of her son. And the last thing that Hersh told his family came in the form of text messages that he sent that same day, the day he was abducted. The first text was, “I love you.” The second one said, “I’m sorry.” And today as of this episode, Hersh has been away from home for sixty-six days. This is Hersh’s mom, Rachel, again.

Rachel (interview excerpt): I would obviously really like to know how my son is doing after losing his arm. And that was the wound that we saw. You know, when you’re in a small room and grenades are going off and bullets are being fired? Yes, he lost his arm, I have no idea if he has internal bleeding, internal damage. I don’t know how his hearing is. I don’t know how his sight is.

Amos: She was very direct about what she’s going through? 

Pablo: How does she describe what she’s feeling?

Amos: She described an almost physical pain. 

Rachel (interview excerpt): You and I are talking right now. And I seem probably pretty functional and normal. But it takes all of my reserves to do it. It’s like someone’s underneath me like twisting my ankle backwards, that’s what it feels like. It’s actual physical pain at all times, and emotional, psychological, spiritual pain, it’s every kind of pain all at once. 

Amos: It was nice for me to speak with her about his fandom, to hear all the positive stories, all the joy that he has had with Hapoel in his life. 

Rachel (interview excerpt): That club has come here to our house and has really become family. The whole fan team had come out to support us with these huge banners. And one of his best friends said, “Gosh, when he gets home, he’s gonna really hate this.” 

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He’s a lot like me, we like to fly under the radar. And now, you know, there’s these enormous murals of his face that just say, “bring Hersh home.” I would love to handle that anger, that would be amazing. If I can have him home, and he’d be disappointed that his face is all over Jerusalem, that I will handle no problem.

Amos: Being this community club, there’s a natural way that you start spreading the word in the community, these murals in Jerusalem. His parents, independent of that, have also done everything they possibly can to press the right buttons, to get the word out, to speak to politicians, to the media.

Rachel (interview excerpt): The idea of what this team and clubs stand for these ideas of peaceful coexistence, normalizing interaction through sports, makes it feel like this painful moment that happened, but that there’s still hope. In this time of intense, exquisite pain that I am in, to know that these people are fighting for him. And all of them are like a tiny ray of hope for me. There’s still hope. It’s hope that’s battered and bruised, and we’re tender right now. But I’m thankful that I have gotten to know these young people, and that they feel so committed to these values, that the club and that the team promote.

Neria (interview excerpt): It’s pretty amazing to see a stadium of 45,000 people, and the stadium announcer is talking about Hersh and his picture i on the big screen. The team has called to bring him back on Facebook and Twitter. And they’ve been very involved. And I think that that’s the power of our solidarity or connection that can be shown also during hard times.

Rachel (interview excerpt): I try not to really think about where he is or what’s happening, because I can think that that could go really scary really fast. But when I have a moment of happy daydreaming, I picture him playing soccer there. I do. I picture him playing soccer with some children there. I don’t know who those children are. If they are other hostages, if they’re Palestinian kids. I don’t know who they are. But I do picture that. 

It’s a good game for teaching patience. I’m willing to watch but it takes a very long time for something to happen. So maybe maybe it’s helping him somewhere because it’s that being able to sit there. Like the fact that you could sit there for two hours and the score is 0-1. That’s actually like a Zen practice of patience. Maybe it’s helping him.

Pablo: Did you hear her indulge the darkest fears that Hersh actually may not end up coming home?

Amos: No, absolutely not. She’s just manifesting that day when he comes back into her arms. That’s all she was focused on.

Rachel (interview excerpt): I also picture that he’s probably really bummed out because he always liked being a goalie. And I think one-handed goalie is probably not totally fair. But I’m thinking when he gets back, we’ll get him like a gigantic bionic arm. And that that left hand is going to be even bigger than it should actually be. And then he’ll be an even better goalie.

Pablo: Rachel’s speaking to you about this nightmare, the through-line in her son’s life, where he was the soccer superfan who was sneaking out of the house to go watch this team, this team has as its whole mission statement, Arab-Jewish relations, and he ends up being one of the people who are kidnapped here. 

And if I’m his mom, I don’t know if my first instinct would be to feel thankful for the team. There’s this incredibly cruel irony that Hersh specifically was one of these people who was taken. Hersh’s story is deeply moving, I hope to everyone. But it’s also just one small window into truly an unimaginable number of tragedies that are happening simultaneously. 

Amos: Today, as we’re speaking, over 15,000 people have been killed in Gaza. You know, there are people buried alive. Those aren’t even counted as deaths yet. And we’re talking about Hersh, and we’re highlighting his story.

Pablo: And just one narrow window into this story. 

Amos: Exactly. It’s a human truism that, and we’ve all heard this cliche, that “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” I worry that even as we’re doing this, that’s where we get lost in, the stories of the people being killed in Gaza. Each and every one of them is a tragedy, each and every one. 

We spoke about this story as a way to talk about Israel, to talk about the political landscape in Israel. And we are fixating on this club that is this basically fringe entity fighting for some little semblance of Arab-Jewish solidarity. But the reality is, that’s not the country. The country is more in line with Ben-Gvir, the National Security Minister. Anyone paying attention to some of the comments that have come out of his allies in the Israeli far-right coalition would be horrified. In part, it’s the flippant way in which they’re talking about massive death: flattening Gaza, talking about crushing Gaza. But it’s also just as an aside, the flippant way in which they’re disregarding the hostages.

Pablo: Right. This is the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, saying as much on television

Gilad Erdan, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations [interview excerpt]: We expect the Red Cross, we expect all international organizations to focus on these hostages and how they are treated and that they receive treatment according to international law, but it’s not going to stop us, prevent us from doing what we need to do in order to secure the future of Israel. 

Amos: In Ben-Gvir’s right-wing camp, it’s about how we have to target Hamas mercilessly without taking into serious consideration the matter of the captives. Another minister has advocated for dropping an atomic bomb on Gaza. When asked, “What about the hostages?” he said, “I hope and pray for their return. But there are costs in war.” 

Back to Hersh for a minute and the idea of when he could come home. This first phase of the hostage negotiations was focused on women and children — and there was an idea that they could move towards another phase. But the negotiations have broken down. 

There is just a basic fact that some elements of the Israeli government are prioritizing the war over releasing the hostages. As the idea of continuing the negotiations was in the air, Ben-Gvir released a statement, saying stopping the war equals breaking apart the government. That meant he was threatening to leave the coalition, the ruling coalition, which would likely trigger elections. This is the most radical option that he could come up with, and he’s using it, threatening Netanyahu, the prime minister, that don’t even think about trying to free more of these hostages or I’ll do the worst thing for you. 

When you hear the ceasefire has ended, the hostage negotiations are off, that didn’t just happen. There are people involved that made that decision, they are prioritizing other things.

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Pablo: I also just want to be very transparent about the decisions we make as a show. I often talk about how we have a newsroom here. And we do, it’s a small group of people that got to decide: What are we covering? And what are we therefore not covering? And we’re a 50-minute show that is about sports, technically. And so I do want to acknowledge that Hersh’s story and the story of Beitar and Hapoel, we chose that not just because it checks those boxes. But because this is now how I’m going to see what seems to be a very disturbing and complicated political dynamic in Israel. 

Just to put what I’ve learned to the test, it seems like in Ben-Gvir, the National Security Minister, we’re gonna get the Beitar superfans deciding: Do I want to release prisoners and exchange them for hostages when those hostages are these Hapoel super fans like Hersh who are not my people in the political or philosophical sense?

Amos: I’ve been reporting on this for 10 years. This is not the only way or even the dominant way of looking at things, but it is a way of looking at things. The teams echo the bigger picture, they aren’t defining it. But through them, I think we can tell these human stories, which reflect the fans, the people in power, this mob mentality that exists with La Familia, the way they influence events in their particular, unique ways. 

To go from here, keep reading, keep understanding why this is happening the way it’s happening, I hope it’s of value in a small, contained way. 

Pablo: And the next human story that I want us to cover together is the story of the goalie with the bionic arm

Amos: Oh, yeah. Superstar.