Deportation From Israel Puts an End to High School Hoop Dreams of South Sudan Migrants

The deportation of five members of the girls basketball team has sent shock waves through Tel Aviv's Bialik-Rogozin High School. Rules are rules, says the Basketball Association.

More than 30 pupils of Bialik-Rogozin High School were recently deported to South Sudan, among them five young women who played in the school's basketball team. The five were the heart and soul of the team, which now consists of only seven players, and its future is uncertain.

Rotem Ginosar, a social studies teacher who established the school team, gave his five students a basketball before he bid them farewell. "I talked with the girls who were deported to Juba, the South Sudanese capital. One of the things they told me after 'everything's fine, there's no electricity here, and its dangerous to go outside' was 'we found a basketball court here in Juba, between the shacks, but only boys play there.' Basketball became a really important part of their identity," says Ginosar.

Ginosar established the girls team and coached them following the request of several pupils a year and a half ago. 'There were several girls in 11th grade who wanted to play basketball," recalls recent Bialik-Rogozin graduate Demet, the daughter of a Turkish migrant worker. “We talked to Rotem and began playing. In the beginning we were a small group, only five girls, but then more girls joined in.”

“At the start they played an hour a week after school,” Ginosar recalls, "but then more girls wanted to play. We started holding tournaments in the breaks. I wanted all the boys to come and watch the girls play."

It worked. The girls basketball team made its presence felt in school, and after a short while the training sessions became more frequent and intensive. "The whole school came to watch us," Demet says proudly. "We became famous."

At the end of last year Ginosar entered the team in the Education Ministry's school league. He quickly discovered that Israeli high school girls aren't keen on basketball, and that the league season is short, amounting to only a few games per season. There's another league, run by the Basketball Association, which is more professional and competitive. But Ginosar ran into problems when he tried to place the girls on one of the teams.

Association regulations allow only two players without Israeli citizenship on any one team. An appeal by Ginosar, who didn't want to separate the girls, was rejected. For two months he unsuccessfully tried to arrange a meeting with the association's leading officials.

One day before a demonstration at Levinsky Park was due to take place, Shaul Shani, then the association's chairman, agreed to meet with the school staff.

After the meeting - and stories that were published in the media – the association changed its rule allowing only two foreign players per team, but the alternative it suggested was flawed. Teams could have more than nine foreign players, but forfeit their right to be promoted to the top league even if they were eligible for promotion by finishing first or second in their league.

“We asked them why. But we never received a logical, professional answer," says Ginosar. "Last year we had a team with six or seven players who didn't have full citizenship. We didn't meet the criteria." Ginosar reveals that he considered tricks that might allow him to comply with association rules, but decided against it. As a social studies teacher he believed that the right way to go about the issue was to struggle for equality.

Last year the 11th and 12th grade team, the Lionesses, finished second in the Tel Aviv high school league. During the academic year, more teams – both for boys and girls – were established and now some 100 girls play basketball at Bialik-Rogozin. "After one year of the project, we're very popular," Ginosar says, "clubs contact us and want the girls to come and play for them."

In the ninth and tenth grade team, only seven girls remained, six of them without Israeli citizenship. Again, Ginosar faces the problem of registration: the team doesn't have nine foreign players, so he can either send some of the girls to other clubs, or continue playing only in the less competitive high school league.

"At this point in time we tend to register the girls and continue to try to change the rules. Up to now, our decision has been to boycott this unequal and distorted league, but I really want to see the girls make progress," Ginosar says. "This inequality is foolish and unjust, but I want the girls to play on a professional team, not only in school. The girls themselves are very ambitious, they want to play and progress."

Ginosar and the players themselves refuse to consider being sent to different clubs. "The only club in the area is Bnei Yehuda, but they can't come together because of the association's regulations. Three of them would have to go elsewhere. The Association told me: 'Send one to Rishon Lezion, another to Holon, and another to Herzliya, separate them all.' But I can't agree to do that," Ginosar says.

A similar dilemma is facing the other teams in school. Last week a petition calling for a change of association regulations was launched on the internet. Meanwhile two students from Tel Aviv University uploaded a short clip to YouTube, telling the story of the Bialik-Rogozin basketball players.

Demet is now doing her best to help the school girls: "There are some here who play basketball just to get away from home," she says. "Now they're not even allowed to do that. This is really racist. There are so few Israeli girls who really want to play basketball; I just can't understand how our wish can damage them. They're simply not Jewish, that's all, that's the only problem."

Demet was the team captain and top player, and Ginosar believes she could have made greater progress if she played on a professional team. "I really wanted to play, but I was always sent alone to all sorts of clubs. I wanted to play with my friends, not alone. I hated the fact that we had to choose who to play with. I couldn't progress," says Demet.

Demet watched Rachel, a 13-year-old girl from Eritrea, and hopes she will get a chance to join a club with her friends. "Rachel joined the project fresh from the absorption center. It really helped her begin to find her place in the school and in Israel. The pupils say, 'did you see the small Eritrean girl dribble?' Many kids already know her," says Ginosar.

Rachel practices two hours every day with a girlfriend. "I wanted to play in Eritrea but we never had the opportunity. I love playing basketball, and it’s really important to me," she says. Asked about association rules, she adds: "It makes me feel sad. But I can't stop playing only because they tell me to. I won't stop playing."

A Basketball Association spokesperson said that according to information possessed by the association, it is the only liberal association in Israel that allows registering non-citizens. "Still, the issue touched the heart of the deputy chairman, Avner Kopel, and he will explore the possibility of changing the regulations soon, so whoever wants to play can do so, as long as he is here legally."

The spokesperson, Hagai Segal, added that following Haaretz's query, Kopel plans to visit Bialik-Rogozin High School at the beginning of the coming school year and meet the basketball players. "The approach will be affected by human consideration more than sport consideration, so that all those who wish to play will be able to do so," said Segal.