Baseball and the Middle East

Many world observers view Israel as a great regional power attempting to impose its will on weaker neighbors.

Yankees Red Sox 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Yankees Red Sox 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
A few weeks ago, my son suggested that we could learn much about Israel’s situation from a recent article about two of America’s most successful baseball teams – the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. He was right.
Many American baseball fans have the impression that the Yankees and Red Sox dominate playoff qualification, making it very difficult for other teams to get into the season-ending championship competition. Various suggestions to overcome this perceived dual dominance are being discussed.
The article points out that this discussion is based on a flawed premise. While the Yankees have been hugely successful for nearly 100 years, the Red Sox were the epitome of futility until very recently. In fact, it’s only since 2003 that the teams have both made it into the playoffs on a regular basis (five of the seven years).
The problem is that people tend to have very short memories. They take what has happened in the past few years (e.g., the joint Yankees/Red Sox success) and conclude that things have always been like this and will continue the same way in the future. We almost never recognize longer cycles.
HERE’S WHERE Israel and the Middle East come in. Much of the world views Israel as the great regional power attempting to impose its will on its weaker neighbors. This view is the result of its overwhelming victory in the Six Day War, and has been reinforced by its continued high profile military presence in the territories.
Similar to the Yankees/Red Sox paradigm, those who hold this view have forgotten that for nearly 2000 years Jews were exiled from their homeland, and were treated as pariahs virtually throughout the world. They ignore Israel’s precarious position when fighting for its very survival in 1948; they fail to recognize that, by all rights, it should not have won the war in 1967 so convincingly; its very limited “victory” in the Second Lebanon War and the 8,000 rockets fired from Gaza don’t even figure into the equation.
More dangerous is the unquestioned assumption regarding Israel’s military superiority in the future. Many believe that what has been true for less than five decades will necessarily continue indefinitely. Similarly, a Jerusalem that was divided for only 19 years, and hastily drawn armistice lines that were never meant as borders, are treated as if they had existed since time immemorial and should therefore be reinstituted permanently as part of the rehabilitation of a Palestinian state that never was.
THESE BELIEFS are held not only by Israel’s enemies, but by friends as well – though stemming from confidence rather than antipathy. For anyone younger than 62, Israel has always existed, so it is easy to conclude that it will continue even without their direct support. This is one reason why so many young Israelis now avoid the draft. They are convinced that the IDF will remain all-powerful while they pursue their own personal interests. Many Jews on the left of the political spectrum, especially those in J Street and similar organizations, criticize Israel harshly not because they wish for its ultimate failure, but because they cannot conceive of the possibility that it could be mortally harmed by such criticism.
In his recent book A Voice Called – Stories of Jewish Heroism, Yossi Katz offers a theory for why the mighty Crusaders were defeated by the Muslims after only 100 years. “Among other important factors, it seems that Christian Europe lost interest in the Crusades and support for the Crusaders waned.”
He then draws a sobering parallel with today. “Some modern Arab leaders have viewed Israel as a contemporary Jewish version of the Crusader kingdom. They’re convinced that, like the Crusader kingdom, so too will the Jewish state fall within 100 years.”
For too many Diaspora Jews, Israel is only a faint whisper among the seemingly more pressing chatter in their daily lives. Their lack of interest could be a serious blow to its long-term struggle for survival.
We can indeed learn a lot about the Middle East from the Yankees and Red Sox. Just as it’s easy to mistakenly assume that the baseball teams’ dominance is permanent by looking only at the recent past, we have to look at the region in a broader historical context to avoid making the same mistake. Only then will we fully appreciate that we are living in a miracle – the as yet only brief renewal of a Jewish homeland after millennia of wandering.
But the miracle requires vigilance and support if it is to endure. We can’t assume that Israel will continue to prosper just because it has succeeded so far. Without constant nurturing, countries tend to run in cycles the same as sports teams do. A team’s fortunes can change overnight. So too the fortunes of the Jewish homeland if we take its continued security for granted.
The writer was a US diplomat for 25 years. He served as Cultural Attache at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv before retiring. He now lives in Zichron Ya’akov and is a Fellow at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. He played, coached and umpired baseball for many years.