Israel Grasps the Basketball Crown

Who would have thought Israel would dream the impossible dream, fight and beat the undefeatable foe not only in the fields of science, startup companies, art, or culture, but in those of sport? Its barely imaginable world victory was registered on May 18, 2014 when the Israeli basketball team, Maccabi Electra TV, won the Euroleague Basketball Championship.

Maccabi beat Real Madrid 98-86 in Milan in overtime in the finals after defeating CSKA of Moscow and Emporio Armani Milan in earlier rounds. With its victory, Maccabi may have reached the moon, but its joy was not unalloyed. Maccabi supporters sang the Israeli song "Kol Haulam Kulo" (the world is a narrow bridge) with the words, “The most important thing is not to be afraid of anything.” In contrast, the immediate response to the Israeli victory by the biased, bigoted, and afraid boycotters of Jews and of Israel was the outpouring of 18,000 anti-Semitic messages posted on Twitter.

The action of these bigoted anti-Semites contrasts with the positive objectives of Euroleague Basketball which had been set up in 2000 under a private organizational model to arrange pan-European competitions among the top professional European teams, which in fact also included Israel and Turkey. At first the League was linked with Telefonica and then with different sponsors, but since 2011-12 Turkish Airlines has been the main sponsor. Turkish Airlines is now responsible for managing the Turkish Airlines Euroleague and the Eurocup in which 72 teams from 25 countries compete.

The 2014 triumph surpassed in significance even the Israeli victory of 1977, when Maccabi Tel Aviv led by Tal Brody beat the Soviet Red Army team CSKA Moscow and won the European Cup Basketball Championship. Brody’s remark, now part of Israeli culture, is legendary, “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map, not only in sports, but in everything.” The spirit expressed by Brody remains in 2014, and he is remembered as a key figure not only in regard to the high status of Israeli basketball but also to Israeli morale in general.

Tal Brody, born in Trenton, New Jersey, was University of Illinois All-American in 1965, played for the U.S. team, which won a gold medal, in the 1965 Maccabiah Games in Israel, and was at the time in the 1960s ranked as one of the ten best players in the U.S. After his service in the U.S. military, Brody gave up any pro career in the U.S., returned to Tel Aviv and was recruited by the Maccabi club. For years he was the dominant player in a game that for him was also a way of life. His entry into the game took place when Maccabi TV reached the finals of the European Cup in the 1966-67 season. This achievement coincided with the military success of the Six Day War in June 1967. Today Brody is the official Israeli Ambassador of Goodwill.

Israel has been powerful in European basketball, but not in world soccer. In the series of tournaments, the qualifying process, organized by the six confederations of FIFA (International Federation of Football Association) in which 208 teams competed for participation in the World Cup, Israel was eliminated in the first round. The world is enjoying the ongoing competition between the 32 teams that did qualify.

But less enjoyably outside of that competition, Israel was confronted within FIFA by accusations by Palestinian soccer associations and their supporters over alleged restrictions on the movement for Palestinian players and their coaches. Palestinian leaders called for Israel to be expelled from FIFA unless it removed those restrictions. The allegations, based on one specific incident of a denial of a visa, are the newest form of the Palestinian campaign to boycott Israel. That campaign has failed in the cultural field as the success of the Israel Festival in May-June 2014 has shown. Now the Palestinian campaign has been extended to sporting events, as it has already been to economic, cultural, and academic activities.

Decision on the Palestinian demand for Israeli expulsion was made by the FIFA leadership, in particular its president, Seep Blatter, the Swiss administrator now in his fourth term and eagerly seeking a fifth term. It is ludicrous that FIFA officials were the individuals who made a decision on this issue. Mr. Blatter has, with questionable plausibility, spoken of FIFA carrying the “flame of honesty, responsibility, and always of respect.” Yet the reality is that the organization has been accused of fraud and misappropriation of funds, and that Blatter has been accused of tolerating corruption. Allegations are that significant sums of money have been paid to FIFA officials in connection with lucrative contracts for World Cup Television rights, as well as illegal payments to the former partner, International Sports and Leisure.

Still unresolved in the assessment of FIFA are the reports about decision-making concerning the future venues for hosting the World Cup. Russia was awarded the 2018 event, Qatar that in 2022. It is still an open question whether the Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam, former political rival of Blatter, bribed African officials to vote for Qatar.

Not surprisingly, in view of Palestinian pressure, the administrative chaos within FIFA, and his presidential ambitions for a fifth term, Seep Blatter did call on the Israeli government to ease restrictions on the movements for Palestinian players, though unexpectedly he did reject the extreme Palestinian demand that Israel be expelled from FIFA. On the whole issue, he might have paid more attention to the explanation by Limor Livnat, Israeli Sports Minister, that Palestinian athletes could enter and exit Israeli territory for the purpose of sport, unless they were using sport to injure or threaten Israeli security.

In a minor way, the FIFA decision that there was no reason to take action against Israel was a defeat for the boycott campaign. Is it too much to hope that the Palestinian leadership will learn from this setback to strive to reach the presently “unreachable star” of peace negotiations?

Michael Curtis, author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.