Team Israel has continued its surprising run at the World Baseball Classic (WBC), defeating the heavily favored Cuba 4-1 at the start of the tournament’s second round [Israel finally lost yesterday, 12-2, to the Netherlands]. The team is made up primarily of Jewish-Americans, with only two players who are actually Israeli citizens. The Jewish-Americans are able to represent Israel due to a combination of the tournament’s flexible rules in which a player can compete for a country if they are eligible for citizenship under its laws, and Israel’s Law of Return allows citizenship for anyone with Jewish heritage.
The media has embraced the team’s unlikely success, variously hailing its exploits as a “Cinderella” story, “David and Goliath,” a “fairy-tale,” and even labeling them the “Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC.” Much of the media focus has been centered on the fact that most of the team’s players aren’t actually from Israel, its mascot ‘Mensch on a Bench’, and the general surprise that Israel, a country with only about 1,000 active baseball players, even has an international baseball team.
In this “softball” coverage, Israel—home to the most powerful military in the Middle East and a cruel system of apartheid directed at the Palestinian people—gets to be the plucky, lovable underdog. Writing in the Forward, David Hazony argues “Team Israel is very much the story of Israel itself….one of overcoming, of impossible achievement, of facing down war and adversity and economic hardship and hate, as well as affirming life, not just surviving but prospering.”
But central to the story of Israel itself is also the dispossession and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their lands and a decades-long occupation. While Jews can become Israeli citizens and are eligible to play for its baseball team, no such Law of Return exists for the Palestinians. In fact, Israel has just made it much harder for Palestinians (as well as Jews and other non-Israelis) critical of Israel to even visit with its newly passed travel ban.
In the Guardian, Les Carpenter begins his coverage of the team with an anecdote about a women’s beach volleyball match between Russia and Georgia at the Beijing Olympics that took place just days after Russia had invaded Georgia. Carpenter describes the passion of the Georgian fans, “desperate for any revenge against Russia.” Although the point of the anecdote is that the players representing Georgia were actually from Brazil and not Georgia, the context of the Russian invasion is provided and the intersection of sport and politics is made clear. However, no such context is provided when it comes to Carpenter’s discussion of the Israeli baseball team and there is no mention of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Sport and politics no longer seem to mix in the same way. Instead, the team is described as a “cute farce, but still a great story.”
Furthermore, there is no mention of the growing calls for sporting boycotts and sanctions against Israel as part of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The aim of sporting boycotts and sanctions is to disrupt Israel’s ability to use international sporting competitions to whitewash its image while it continues to violate international law and Palestinian human rights. While much of the focus of these efforts to date has been on soccer, it doesn’t just have to be about high-profile sports. Table tennis was hardly a high profile sport in apartheid South Africa. And yet the International Table Tennis Federation was the first international sports organization to expel white South African representatives, way back in 1956 as the movement to isolate South Africa from international sports was just beginning.
Some may ask why this matters, especially given the relatively low profile of baseball and the fact that most of the team are not from Israel. It matters because the team still represents Israel, indeed represents the story of Israel itself if you believe Hazony, and as Israel Association of Baseball secretary general Margo Sugarman said, the “whole world is talking about” the team. Without the context of Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians and the growing calls for sporting boycotts and sanctions, the fawning media coverage of the team’s progress simply contributes to the further normalization of Israeli apartheid.