Home run for Israel’s relationship with US Jewry

The people who created the Israeli baseball leagues 30 years ago were dreamers.

Can the two come together?  (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
Can the two come together?
The last time Israel fielded a sporting team at the Olympics was in 1976 and the players competed on the soccer pitch. At the 2020 Tokyo Games, Israel’s national baseball team will try to earn the country its first-ever Olympic medal in a team sport. Yes, Israel’s Baseball team is headed to the Olympics in what can be viewed as a home run for the country’s relationship with the American Jewish community.
Unlike basketball or soccer, the fact that Israel has a national baseball team is not obvious. Israel lacks infrastructure. The country has almost no professional playing fields, few youth teams and a complete lack of public exposure. Until recently, imagining an Israeli baseball team at the Olympics wearing blue and white and singing “Hatikva” could have been material for a comic movie. It might have become our tribal version of the 1993 classic Cool Runnings. In fact, it was in the 1990s when I – and other children of English-speaking immigrants – played in the local little league for a few years, learning baseball skills on soccer fields with no pitcher mound or backstop.
However, the people who created the Israeli baseball leagues 30 years ago were dreamers. And in recent years, their dreams met those of American Jews who know and love the game and are more than happy to use their skills in the service of Israel. In 2017, the team finished sixth at the World Baseball Classic. This year it won the second-tier competition in Europe and finished fourth at the European Baseball Championship. Now it has won the Olympic qualifying tournament, becoming the second team to clinch its place in the prestigious tournament, along with Japan, the host.
Truth be told, it could not have happened without talented Jewish American players from different backgrounds. Some are professional players with current or past Major League Baseball contracts; others have played at the collegiate or level. They joined a number of Israeli-born players and together achieved something few had imagined, and even fewer thought was possible.
Reaching the 2020 Olympic Games is an amazing achievement for the team, and each member should be proud when the Israeli anthem is played before the opening pitch in Tokyo. However, this is also an example of the amazing things we can achieve when working together in all fields of life.
UNTIL 1948, the Jewish people dreamed of a Jewish state. When David Ben-Gurion announced Israel’s independence, world Jewry was active both in establishing and in building the state. Things are different today. Tensions between Israel and the American Jewish community have grown. There are real differences of opinion in the fields of politics, the conflict with the Palestinians and non-Orthodox Judaism. These affect how Israel interacts with US Jewry, and it would be irresponsible to dismiss them.
However, the relationship is bigger than religious debates, and more important than questions of foreign policy. Based on morals and the understanding that both sides need each other, Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community affects many aspects of our life, and has the potential to impact even more.
In arts and culture, academic research, financial investments and security cooperation, the connections between the sides are visible. People like Prof. Stanley Fischer or Gal Gadot are examples of how this relationship contributes to both sides.
This is also true of Israeli-born catcher Tal Erel and Louisiana-born pitcher Jeremy Bleich. In all likelihood, neither one would have made the Olympics without the other, and this is true of all 24 players. Not 24 hours after qualifying, members of Israel’s Olympic committee admitted that none of them saw this coming. It is not a simple Cinderella story; it is the story of two partners achieving something neither one could alone. Only five of the players who sung “Hatikva” and wore blue and white during the qualifying tournament were born in Israel. The others are American Jews who were more than happy to play under the Israeli flag. Together, they made the impossible come true, giving a modern interpretation to Herzl’s statement: “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
After we congratulate the players who clinched the ticket to Tokyo 2020, we should turn to the next task: identifying other areas in which we can cooperate. We need to envision projects as far-fetched as an Israeli baseball team at the Olympics, which can benefit both sides and help create new bridges to narrow the gap between Israel and the American Jewish community.
The writer is a program officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to strengthen Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community.