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If baseball coverage of Team Israel is ‘the story of Israel itself,’ then we should not forget the Palestinians

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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.

Aubrey Bloomfield

Aubrey Bloomfield is a writer and researcher focusing on the intersection of sport and politics. He has contributed to Al Jazeera English, Guardian Australia, The Nation, Africa is a Country, and a number of other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @aubbloomfield.

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9 Responses

  1. Ossinev on March 14, 2017, 12:59 pm

    It will be interesting to see what manouevres and shenanigans Zioland gets up to once full scale full frontal Apartheid kicks in and sporting boycotts become the norm as with South Africa.

    A significant proportion of Israelis do like their sports and their sporting heroes – not those emanating from the 22% Arab citizens of course but thoroughbred through and through ancestral homeland models such as those in the article. LOL

    If they can`t find them in Zioland itself then they will claim them by default such as in the Jewish – American athlete so and so did whatever in wherever.

    And “Mensch on the Bench” – FFS. Seriously pathetically stupid.

    • Rusty Pipes on March 14, 2017, 9:50 pm

      “Mensch on the Bench” is more likely targeted to a diaspora audience than Israeli. Not only does the yiddish, “mensch” rhyme with “bench” in English. But also, being a “Mensch” is valued among American Jews — whereas the same behavior may get one labeled as a “Freier” in Israel.

      • Maghlawatan on March 15, 2017, 1:39 am

        Mensches are banned from Israel under the latest legislation..Only morons and assholes will get a visa now.

      • Boo on March 15, 2017, 12:12 pm

        Indeed, that one may be in the process of having his wallet lifted.

  2. eljay on March 14, 2017, 1:37 pm

    “Team Israel” highlights the religion-supremacist “Jewish State” nature of Israel: If you hold the religion-based identity of “Jewish”, you qualify as an Israeli even if you have no tangible ties (citizen, expat, refugee, up to n-generations removed) to Partition-borders Israel.

    It funny how the GoI and Zionists all over the world do their utmost to conflate Israel with all Jews and all Jews with Israel, and then turn around and scream anti-Semitism when people understandably conflate Israel with all Jews and all Jews with Israel.

    • Maghlawatan on March 15, 2017, 1:43 am

      It’s funny too that one fifth of Israelis are not Jewish but that there has never been a government minister from their ranks. They never get a look in when people talk about team Israel.

      • Eva Smagacz on March 15, 2017, 2:34 pm


        “there has never been a government minister”

        You….. you….. Anti-Semite !!!!!! (/sarcasm)
        There was!
        There WAS!!
        THERE WAS!!!

        ONE minister, ONCE, in 70 ( thats seventy ) years.

        Briefly minister of culture (or was it sport) and then made to be a minister without portfolio. His name is Rajab Majadele.

        See – one can meet Unicorns if one looks long enough. Truly Israel is a country of miracles.


  3. on March 14, 2017, 6:42 pm

    Far be it from me to point this out, but that team mascot looks pretty darn anti-semitic. If it were in the stands, I guess. Not on the bench.

  4. Citizen on March 16, 2017, 4:44 pm

    Israeli baseball team heading home after Japan defeat via @JewishNewsUK

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