The Last Word: Why is Israel playing on Rosh Hashana?

The Last Word Why is Is

For many American Jews, Sandy Koufax is a hero, the Brooklyn Dodgers' star who refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax was held up as an example of a man who stood up for his beliefs, becoming a trailblazer for all Jews in sports. In the 44 years since, there have been many sportsmen who have followed in the footsteps of Koufax, who was eventually named MVP of the 1965 World Series. In 2005, Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Shawn Green, seemingly inspired by the great Koufax stance 40 years earlier, spent Yom Kippur with his family rather than playing in a crucial late season game against San Francisco. Israelis have followed suit, although their decisions have not always garnered the respect of the international community. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, sailors Yoel Sela and Eldad Amir almost definitely lost out on becoming Israel's first ever medalists when they forfeited one of the races, scheduled on Yom Kippur, and ended up finishing fourth. Two years ago, however, the International Tennis Association accommodated Israel, allowing the national team to begin its World Group playoff against Chile a day early in order to avoid playing on the Saturday, which was also Yom Kippur. So when Israel shocked Russia in the Davis Cup quarterfinals in July to set up a mouthwatering tie against Spain this weekend, I was shocked and confused to see little, if any, opposition to the tie being played over Rosh Hashana. In my, and many, many Israelis' traditions, Rosh Hashana is up there with Yom Kippur as one of the two most important dates on the Jewish calendar. As a youngster growing up in London, it was practically unheard of for Jews to work on either date, however religiously unobservant they were for the rest of the year. Traditions are the fabric which binds the Jewish people, and it should be a given that the national tennis team should represent the Jewish State and its historical traditions. Just as Israeli prime ministers always eat kosher food when they travel abroad on official visits, whether they are religious or not, so too the national sports teams have a responsibility to stand up for their Jewish heritage. It was a grave mistake for captain Eyal Ran to not even attempt to get the date of the tie moved to prevent Dudi Sela, Harel Levy, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich from desecrating such an important day in such a public manner. This is far from the first time this issue has arisen, but it is interesting to note how a large majority Israelis would never consider working on Yom Kippur or allowing their team to play on Tisha B'Av, but Rosh Hashana is not seen as similarly problematic. A comparable situation occurred in 2004, when Maccabi Tel Aviv played Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Rosh Hashana, having done hardly anything to try and change the date of the game. Some might argue that Israel is a secular country and there is no obligation for its sportsmen to adhere to religious Jewish laws. That many local league sports are played on Shabbat in this country is often used as proof of such. However, whether the majority of fans are religious or not, there is no reason for Israel's sporting institutions not to do everything they can to avoid playing on the most holy of religious days. Yes, many soccer matches are played on Shabbat but, really, there is no need. Enough games are played on Friday afternoons or later Saturday evening to prove that all the games could be. In January 2006, Israel was drawn to play in a Euro 2008 qualifying group with England. When it was decided that the game at Wembley would be played on Shabbat, many local Jewish groups were up in arms, especially when it turned out that the Israel Football Assocation had made little effort to get the English FA to alter the timing of the match. Israel is a Jewish country and its representatives need to understand what this means, in the eyes of the wider Jewish community and the entire world. Despite believing the Davis Cup team should not be playing in Murcia on Saturday and Sunday, I am still going to be hoping for an Israeli victory. The tie is one of the biggest sports events Israel has been involved in its 61 year history. Let's hope the timing doesn't work against the players.