Q&A: The man who put Israel on the map

Maccabi Tel Aviv legend Tal Brody tells the 'Post' that he is more confident than ever that Israel is here to stay.

brody 521 (photo credit: OURIA TADMOR)
brody 521
(photo credit: OURIA TADMOR)
Famous for "putting Israel on the map" with his exceptional basketball skills, former sports star and current Goodwill Ambassador for Israel Tal Brody has devoted most of his life to public diplomacy - be it on the basketball court or on university campuses around the world. The first sportsman to ever win the prestigious Israel Prize discusses his past and present with The Jerusalem Post.   Where did your connection to Israel initially come from?
When I speak abroad in different universities from coast to coast in North America, when people ask about me about my parents, I say my father was a Palestinian and people are bewildered. They think Palestinians are only Arabs; they don't realize they are also Jews - that before 1948 we were living under the British Mandate. My father was here between 1921 and 1923. He was one of the engineers who built the first airfield in Herzliya and built the first electric station, Rothenberg, in Israel. My father then went to the US where I was born. I was raised traditional Jewish. As far as Israel was concerned, I first had the opportunity to come with the 7th Maccabiah Games.
With this, came another opportunity when Maccabi Tel Aviv approached me to take up a challenge and come to Israel for a year and help take Israeli basketball to another level. The team at that time had never got past the first round in the European basketball championships. That challenging year opened the door to everything that came afterwards: the excitement of the first year, experiencing the vivid cultural and social life and being part of Israel’s history was something I got attached to. I didn't come as a Zionist, but I became a Zionist by experiencing Israel day by day.
What does being a Goodwill Ambassador entail?
Broadening the conversation, speaking about why I came to Israel, why I stayed here, what I've been doing here, what Israel actually is and how I've experienced it. I talk about our experiences and successes, whether it's culture, sport, medicine, technology - many people aren't aware of the vivid cultural, social, and sport life and how the Israeli public is so involved. It brings a lot of honor to the country and makes it proud. We're living in a very tough neighborhood in which we are the most stable country, and that's what I try to explain - how we are here amid Muslim countries and the Arab Spring.
Almost 40 years on from your famous quote, "we are on the map, we are staying on the map, not only in sport, but in everything” - do you still feel as confident about this?
Even more so than ever. Today there are still people who think that we shouldn't exist, but we are here and very stable and according to World Happiness Report, we are the 11th happiest country in the world. And even with Roger Waters and the trash that comes out of his mouth, we have so many entertainers who come here: Rihanna, Cyndi Lauper, Alicia Keys, Sharon Stone, Robert de Niro, Deep Purple, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Madonna,Tom Jones, etc, etc. We are filling up stadiums and opera houses and as much as they try to BDS us, we are lucky that in the States we have the Christian community standing beside the Jewish community. They are standing together at boycott sites saying 'buy Israeli goods.' The boycotters are hurting Arab and Palestinian people more than Israel. There is so much growing cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians; for example the recent water deal between Jordan, Israel and the PA. Indonesia, a Muslim country, just signed a Trade agreement with Israel. Those BDS people are only hurting the people they are speaking for with these boycotts.What do you think about the American Studies Association’s recent decision to participate in an academic boycott of Israel?
The fact that they discriminate and boycott is the most stupid and ignorant decision I ever heard in my life from people who are very smart. Ninety percent of them have probably never been to Israel, and it's hard to say what they base their judgment on. It hurts them more than Israel, it hurts their prestige and honor. They just need to see how many Arabs are studying together with Jews in Jerusalem, Haifa, and then look at the incitement against Israel in Palestinian textbooks. What were the most memorable moments in your sporting career?
My first season in Israel, with the miracle of the Barcelona game - that was the first milestone. This was the season of '66-'67 when we went from the team who never got past the first round, to the team that got to the finals. For the Israeli public -- which was going through the recession at the time -- it was like a revolution as far as sport was concerned. It turned Israel from a soccer loving country to a basketball loving country and the people were smiling.
The '77 season, when we beat CSKA Moscow, was also something which turned the public upside down. No-one thought we were able to beat them as they had seven players from the Russian team which had beaten the US in the '72 Olympics.
My proudest moment in Israel was after we won the championships, and a few years after my retirement, I was called up to Jerusalem to receive the Israel Prize: the highest honor that any citizen can receive. To be the first sportsman to receive this was to fulfill the dream of transforming a team which never got past the first round, to take on a challenge and take basketball to another level. And realizing this dream ten years later was fantastic. Receiving the Israel Prize upon retiring was one of the proudest moments of my life.
And what's your biggest achievement as Goodwill Ambassador of Israel?
Speaking in North America for public diplomacy is challenging, but I'm happy that I have succeeded in taking on this challenge. The pro-Palestinians mislead the students by trying to associate apartheid to Israel. Ridiculous, as it's mostly associated with South Africa and the blacks and the whites; people are misled by Israel being called apartheid. I explain to them why we are not an apartheid state and it's satisfying that they are no longer getting a one sided opinion by professors or people carrying signs on campuses.
Or when they talk of the separation wall, I explain to them, it's a security fence, and that a thousand Israelis were killed by suicide attacks when we didn't have the security fence and thousands more were injured. I relate it to them, and make them understand the fear of being blown up on a bus or at a supermarket because there is no security. I explain that because of this there was a need to build fences, and they can be taken down like Lego, but first there needs to be a peace agreement. It's easy for someone 6000 miles away to ask why we have a separation wall (security fence).What do you think is the most striking characteristic of an Israeli?Someone who knows exactly where he came from and why he is here, and why he has to stand up for this country. Most people I associate with are people who served this country very well both in the army and after.
What message would you like to transmit to rising Israeli sports stars?
I would tell them that today they have much better conditions than in the past: better facilities, coaches, better understanding from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, which has developed and is encouraging young athletes. I would say 'you have the perfect opportunity and it all depends on you, to put in, and listen and learn and today you can be a world star athlete - it’s just up to you.'