The Inspiration of the Israeli Baseball Team

Guest blog from James Thurman Kahn, member of the Jewish Outreach Institute President’s Advisory Board

In this year full of serious issues, it can be a great relief to lose one’s cares in an interlude of baseball.

Here’s part of what’s so inspiring about the new Israeli baseball team: many of these players are Americans who grew up secular, maybe not even religious; some had only one Jewish parent or grandparent. Yet, they identify with Israel – contradicting both left-wingers like Peter Beinert, and many right-wingers who think that only religious Jews support Israel. The lie from both ends of the political spectrum, which each side uses for different reasons, is the same: assimilated American Jews are not Zionist. But here are these guys with Stars of David on their caps, and I bet they have a much stronger feeling for Israel and for Judaism than they did before this began. It’s a wonderful rallying point for the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI).

The beauty is, it’s only a game. However, tell that to African-Americans in 1936 when racial bigotry was everywhere and the Nazis had the “superior race,” and then Jesse Owens won all those medals in the Berlin Olympics. Now, in 2012, when world leaders are sitting quietly, listening to Ahmadinejad explain how Israel and “400 years of Zionism” are a cancer that must be wiped off the map, there is a certain comfort in being allowed to compete on equal footing, a team like any other team.

The World Baseball Classic rules state that if you qualify as a citizen of a nation, then you can play for that nation. Thus, famous former New York Met Mike Piazza, who grew up in America to Italian grandparents, played for Italy. This rule would have allowed last year’s MVP Ryan Braun to play for Israel next March, along with a team full of stars, as well as in the qualifying match in November. But for unexplained reasons, that match was moved to September, meaning that no Jewish major league players could play because their MLB season was still going on. Instead, we had a talented team of minor leaguers, and they beat South Africa and Spain, then lost to Spain in a close game in the final. Now we have to wait another four years.

Right-wingers often imply that assimilated American Jews are not Zionist, as a way of denigrating assimilation and less-than-Orthodox Judaism. Left-wingers also disparage American Jewish loyalty to Israel, because they want Israel to understand that American Jews don’t support her, so that Israel will be induced to make concessions that the left-wingers think somehow will persuade militant Islamists to be nice to them. I’m here to say that those great Jewish players wearing Stars of David on their caps and kibitzing and kvetching with the fans in the stands were what I needed to see. I’ve been thinking of buying one of those caps on the internet, but I’m a little nervous – is it safe to wear in public? Of course if it’s not, that’s largely because of the malicious slanders being told about Israel and/or the Jews, often by people who should be our friends. This very injustice makes me want to wear the hat even more, and various comments by members of Israel’s baseball team make me believe that some of the players feel the same way.

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