It is the Holy Land’s Old Firm: Beitar Jerusalem v Bnei Sachnin, the team of the Israeli nationalist right against the Arab minority team. A father and his daughter are standing in the VIP section overlooking the Sachnin fans: the girl, no more than eight years old is learning new songs tonight. “Here she comes, the racist team of the country,” the father teaches her proudly. It is a song about Beitar, sung by the Beitar fans before every game. “May your village burn,” is another popular chant that the girl catches with ease. This one is directed only at Arab teams.

There were times when David Mizrahai led the singing among Beitar fans – and much more. He was a key member of La Familia, the notorious Ultras organisation that has Beitar under its spell and was regularly involved in violent attacks against rival fans. Mizrahi was the face of La Familia, always happy to shock the mainstream media with well-spoken racism. He led the protest when Beitar dared to sign to Muslim players and was one of the people responsible for actually turning Beitar into the racist team of the country.

These days you won’t find him among La Familia’s yellow-clad hordes. While some of his former friends are awaiting trial for the attempted murder of a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan, Mizrahi’s life took a different route. He still attends Beitar home games but stays away from the people who once adored him and now despise him. It is one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Israeli football history: the messenger of hate has become a  man of peace. The fan who used to lead manhunts of Palestinians in the streets and alleys of Jerusalem spends his time in the city’s schools preaching understanding and tolerance.

Mizrahi was born in 1989 in a west Jerusalem neighbourhood to a poor family, the son of disabled parents who lived on state benefits and by begging on the street. He was sent to a religious boarding school in the south of the city in hope of him finding meaning and discipline. Instead he found Beitar. “I was 12 and I jumped over the fence of the boarding school, I put my kippa in my pocket and went to the nearby stadium,” he said. “It was Beitar against Maccabi Haifa, 20,000 people singing in unison, in love, passion, with flags and drums. I felt immediately that I had found a family. I started going to all the home games and then away games as well. Every shekel of my allowance went on games. Coming from such a poor background, Beitar gave me a warm hug, a sense of belonging, an anchor to life. As I went on I felt that I could lead people, that I could have control over them, that they were listening to me and that I had presence.”

Two years later, when he was 14, Mizrahi’s love for the club was confirmed. “Other people dream of being a football star,” he said. “I dreamt of being a famous fan. I asked my father for money to buy shoes, a man without a shekel in his pocket, a father who sometimes had to choose between medicine and food, and went and had my first tattoo to symbolise my love for the club. It shows the club crest of a menorah and the words, ‘Beitar Jerusalem, I was born for you, I will die to serve you’.”

Mizrahi served the club as a prominent fan. He became a dominant figure in HaYatzia HaMizrahi, the East Side of Teddy Stadium, the territory of La Familia, and was involved in attacking left-wing Hapoel Tel Aviv fans as well as Arab citizens in his home town. At 18, he had already had five convictions. He fell in love with Beitar at a critical moment in the city’s history. When the second Intifada broke out in 2000, the city suffered wave after wave of terror attacks. Buses and cafes were blown up and Jewish-Arab relations in the city reached all time low. Beitar, who were on the brink of becoming the most popular team in Israel, became a hotbed for hate and nationalism, driving moderate fans away. La Familia grew in numbers, grew close to some of Beitar’s owners and became a powerful organisation with a clear demand for the club: they would not field an Arab or Muslim player.

Beitar became a toxic brand. ‘Normal’ fans found it harder and harder to share the stands and love the club with violent and racist thugs. Commercial organisations didn’t want to be linked with the once popular club. There were times when half of the Likud government could have been seen at home games, but the East Stand became home for the most extreme and racist politicians. The club fought, belatedly, to get its independence back. The management, led by the former club captain Itzik Kornfein, tried to distance itself from the Ultras and the struggle came to a head when two Chechen players, Zaur Sadayev and Dzhabrail Kadiyev, were signed on loan in January 2013 as a parting shot by the owner Arkady Gaydamak. A large proportion of the fans refused to accept the players and demonstrated against them and the management. They harassed the two players and left the stadium en masse when Sadayev scored for Beitar. In a highly symbolic gesture, fans torched a room containing Beitar’s collection of trophies and other historic items. Beitar’s proud history was turned to ashes while in the East Stand a huge banner was displayed: “Beitar – forever pure.” The Nazi connotations shook Israel and made it into the global media.

“I was one of the leaders of the protest,” said Mizrahi. “I was troubled by the fact that they are Muslims and I decided to lead the movement against them. We abused them at training; we didn’t support the team during games. We cursed and fought until they left. The fans were divided: there was civil war, violence against the fans who still supported the team. We threw things at them. It was war in the stands.”

Mizrahi and his group of loyal devotees took the fight outside the Teddy. They gathered in front of Kornfein’s home and shouted horrific slurs against the chairman, his wife and their children. In the documentary Forever Pure Mizrahi is seen leading a small group of his fans on the pavement of a leafy neighbourhood chanting, “Eti [Kornfein’s wife], I want you to know, the next cock you will get is mine.” It went on for weeks. “I cursed his wife and kids in a terrible way that I can’t repeat,” he says now. “He sued me for 380,000 shekels (about €90,000) and I didn’t even bother to go to court. I took it lightly, put the court papers in a drawer and didn’t think much of it. And suddenly I saw on the internet that I had to pay. It shook me to the core. I ended my marriage, and these two things, the divorce and the fine, were the worst moments of my life. These days I regret it not just because of the fine: he was a great goalkeeper and I was impulsive. Nobody set me any boundaries and I said things no one should hear.

“But a lot of good came out of it. It was Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] and I realised it was all my own doing, that a man is responsible for his actions. I had a moment of lucid clarity. I had to have a good look into my actions and search my soul. Eventually it was also a good thing for me. Without it I would be behind bars now. Without that slap to the face you would not have not been able to talk to me right now.”

The fine was reduced to 60,000 shekels and Mizrahi went to work to pay it off. That was the second moment that changed his life. “I started working in a date-packing plant in the Jordan Valley,” Mizrahi said, “and it was the first time that I properly met Arabs and talked to them, even though I grew up in a mixed city. From an early age I used to see every Arab as a terrorist. I spoke to a guy called Abed about his family. He has four kids and he earns 70 shekels a day while I’m making 300 for the same hours. Why? Isn’t he a human being too? Later that week an Arab bus driver helped my mother and gave her cold drink on a hot day and I realised that they are not the monsters I thought they were. People want to live, not to die, they are looking for hope, on both sides, for better future for their families. As a kid I never had guidance and I choose the wrong way. Today, with my experience I want to help boys in schools and give them the right tools to make the right decisions.”

As a prominent leader and somebody who loves the media, his previous actions are all over YouTube. One video shows a meeting with Mohammad Ghadir, then a star player at Sakhnin, in 2013. Mizrahi refused to shake Gadir’s hand or to drink at his house. He spewed hate at his host in his soft Jerusalem accent with echoes of his religious education in his rich vocabulary. Gadir, who believed that the invitation could lead to a change of heart, was visibly shocked at Mizrahi’s venom. Despite general abhorrence, Mizrahi’s actions reinforced the anti-Arab feeling among the ultras. “He opened his house to me, that was my first meeting with an Arab but I came all blocked because of my prejudices,” Mirzahi said. “I said some harsh things and left the place. The problem was that after such negative behaviour I got a warm reaction, people came and said ‘Well done,’ and I thought I’d done well. When I watch the video today I feel that I was impulsive. I lacked respect. What’s the point of all this hatred?”

Mizrahi’s change of heart became the talk of the town. He became the most hated figure among members of La Familia. Some believed his life was in danger while others were sceptical about his motives. These days, about two years into his metamorphosis, he works at schools talking about tolerance and respect for others. In this fascinating, poor, hateful and beautiful city that has lived on the edge for generations, he is a rare voice of hope. “My grandfather told me that he got along with his Arab neighbours in Iraq and that we should reach out to the weak population, give our hand in peace,” Mizrahi said. “They respected each other in Iraq but over here the incitement is just getting worse. People from both sides need to meet each other more, and an alley cat like me who made all the mistakes and learned from them can help. Only last week a child told me that he stopped throwing rubbish on the floor for the Arab cleaner to pick up after a talk I gave.”

The change of heart came with a heavy price. The 2013 battle for Beitar was won by La Familia. After five months of acrimony, a lot of Beitar fans were driven away from games, while players who dared to support their Chechen teammates were vilified and targeted and the team was almost relegated. When Arkady Gaydamak finally left the club, the new owners gave up the fight and accepted La Familia’s position. Despite infiltration by undercover agents, a police crackdown and the arrest of many members following an attack on Hapoel Tel Aviv fans, the organisation still holds Beitar hostage to its views. 

It was bad news for Mizrahi as he is no longer welcome among La Familia. “I love Beitar but I take a pounding there,” he said. “I can only go the West Stand, the moderate one. I can’t get to the east one. People there physically attack me, abuse me and spit at me. They call me traitor just because I changed my views. I grew up with them, and I am the enemy? It hurts. They say that I betrayed the country, the club and La Familia, but I am not a traitor. I am a man who loves his team and believes that a real fan should concentrate on supporting his team. If you get in trouble and your parents see you handcuffed, is that support? I get calls from people who are looking for a change but unfortunately Beitar has been hijacked by those people. The Ultras became more important than Beitar Jerusalem.”

Does he miss it? “I now go to the West Stand with 50-60 boys who support the team with love. I don’t miss the violence or the arrests, but I can’t go to away games as I’m not safe there. My social environment is in schools, in hospitals where I cheer up the sick. I let my energy out in the gym instead of fights. I do miss the sense of power that I had but if people hate me because of the new way I’ve taken then I don’t miss that. I feel that I’ve gained my life again. I sleep better, I live better and I’m healthier. When a kid in hospital tells me that I’m his first visitor all day it makes my day. When I was racist I was much more popular. Everything I wrote or said brought cheers and reinforcement from hundreds of fans. I had five times more friends but quality is better than quantity. I took my abilities on a different path.

“The police wanted me to become an informant but I refused. I told the officer that I still have in my heart warm feeling towards the people that I grew up with. I don’t agree with them but they did help me with money when I needed to pay the fine and many of them have a hard background. I’m not against La Familia, I am for better education so they could make the right decisions.”

Where does he see himself in ten years time? “Having a degree in education and working with youth. I hope one day to say I’m sorry face to face to Kornfein and to have his forgiveness. That and to make a constant change for the good.”