Israeli sports, once a source of despair and shame, now gives us thrill, pride, hope, and faith.
Take soccer. A lone appearance in the 1970 World Cup was followed by more than half a century of repeated failures to even qualify for soccer’s quadrennial spectacle. Israelis thus got used to cheering foreign soccer powers like Holland, Denmark, England, or Brazil, never expecting a blue-and-white squad to emerge in their midst.
In track and field, the situation was even more embarrassing, as Israeli men’s records were sometimes not much better than other countries’ high school results.
Well, no longer. In what is emerging as a milestone in Israel’s steadily improving athletic status, this summer has brought a slew of once unthinkable, world-class achievements.
In June’s World Cup for teams younger than 20, the Israeli squad reached the semifinals and finished third in the world after four inspiring victories, including a particularly impressive 3-2 defeat of soccer superpower Brazil.
Two weeks later, in the European Cup for teams younger than 21, Israel again reached the semifinals, after tying mighty Germany 1:1, and defeating the Czech Republic and host Georgia before succumbing to European champion England.
This month, in the European Basketball Championship for teams under 20, Israel reached the final for the fourth time since 2017, losing to France in overtime after defeating Turkey and Belgium, and upsetting Germany and Spain.
The same day, in the under-20s World Athletic Championships, 19-year-old Blessing Afrifah sprinted to a gold medal in the 200-meter dash, stopping the clock at 20.67 seconds, actually far from his personal record of 19.96 seconds.
What’s going on, and what does it mean?
BACK IN spring 2004, as the Athens Summer Olympiad approached and this newspaper’s editors discussed its importance, then-editor-in-chief Bret Stephens said hype about the Greeks’ unpreparedness for the games will prove unfounded, and the rest of the story will be even less significant because spectator sports are essentially unimportant.
Bret was right about the Greeks – the games were flawless – but not about sports. The excitement, heroics, and collective experience of spectator sports can reflect social trends, defy political reality, and help inspire change.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers fielded Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball’s first Black player, they wrote a golden line in American history. When Jesse Owens starred in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he shamed Hitler and his racism more powerfully than a thousand politicians’ speeches. When Hungary’s water polo team defeated the Soviet Union in the 1956 Olympics, days after the Red Army killed thousands of rebels in Budapest, sports was war’s continuation by other means.
Fortunately, no such drama is at play in Israel’s new athletic success. However, what is at play does transcend sports, reflecting political, economic, and social trends that should inspire us all, especially in these Israeli days of political awe.ONE FACTOR in Israel’s athletic resurgence is demographics. Israel is no longer small. With nearly 10 million inhabitants, it is now more populous than 90 of the world’s 193 states.
While Israel’s population trebled in half a century, the international system splintered, producing multiple small countries, from North Macedonia, South Sudan, and East Timor, to Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Between them, these two processes transformed Israel from the small country it was during the Cold War to the mid-size country it now is, in league with Sweden, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. It is only natural that athletic performance will improve in tandem with such political growth.
Even more crucially, Israel also became rich, and could thus invest more in its athletes.
That is what Israel did since collecting its first Olympic medal, judoka Yael Arad’s silver in 1992, which has since been followed by 12 others, three of them gold. Funding has become such that the recent Tokyo Olympic Games’ two gold medalists, gymnasts Artem Dolgopyat and Linoy Ashram, were granted by the Israel Olympic Committee NIS 0.5 million each.
However, Israel’s sporting achievements are about more than money and demographics, defying some of the Jewish state’s uglier sides. A case in point is the ethnic side of the young teams that just astonished soccer fans worldwide.
TWO OF the Israeli goals against Brazil were scored by Hamza Shibli and Anan Khalaili, respectively, from the Galilean towns Arab-el-Shibli and Sakhnin. Along with Ahmed Salman, of Jerusalem’s Beit Safafa neighborhood, these Israeli Arabs form a critical mass of the under-20 national squad.
In June, millions watched a blue-and-white soccer team’s Arabs and Jews harmonize en route to victory after victory, openly displaying friendships that the bigots above us, from both sides of the conflict, find unnatural at best, abominable at worst.
There is such an Israel.
The same Israel in which Blessing Afrifah, born in Tel Aviv to foreign workers from Ghana, graduated Ohel Shem high school in Ramat Gan from which he emerged with perfect Hebrew, proceeded to serve in the IDF, and while at it, happily represents the country that is his only home, in defiance of a cabinet minister who made a career of defaming foreign workers.
The same Israel whose newest basketball celebrity, Yale sophomore Danny Wolf, who averaged 17.7 points for Team Israel, is an American Jew whose family held his and his brothers’ bar mitzvah ceremonies here. Wolf’s identification with, and embrace by, the Jewish state and its citizens are natural and tight, in total disregard of Israeli zealots who write off the non-Orthodox Diaspora as “non-Jewish.”
Yes, we are living in testing times, days of darkness in which all things progressive are under attack, and any pluralist is a foe. Even so, there is another way; there is another reality; there is another Israel – an Israel that listens, an Israel that contains, an Israel that tolerates, an Israel that embraces, an Israel that wins.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.