American Jews Don't Need Israel. Baseball Is the Proof

What the Olympics taught us about muscular Jews and Zionism

Iddo Schejter
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Danny Valencia of Team Israel celebrates a home run at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Danny Valencia of Team Israel celebrates a home run at the Tokyo 2020 OlympicsCredit: JORGE SILVA/ REUTERS
Iddo Schejter

During the second Zionist Congress, held in Basel in 1898, Max Nordau, one of the movement's early leaders, called for the creation of a new type of Jew: a muscular one.

The ethos of muscular Judaism, which saw Jews liberating themselves from their meek essence through physical and athletic pursuits so as to fulfill the Zionist mission, has seeped deeply into modern Israeli culture.

Ironically, however, while Nordau was delivering his speech, a large wave of Jews emigrated from Europe, not to Israel, but to the United States. There, the melting pot that is American society slowly but surely created an alternative to Nordau's Zionist muscular Jew. And in the last Olympic Games, we witnessed this alternative in all its glory, in the form of the Israel baseball team.

Much controversy surrounded this unlikely team,  which finished its Olympic journey in fifth place. For one, the players are Israeli in only the most technical sense of the word. The Israel Association of Baseball scouted players throughout the United States who qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and naturalized them just in time for the original date of this year's Olympics, back in 2020.

Max Nordau (1849- 19239), Hungarian doctor and author, friend of Theodor Herzl, and enthusiast of the new Zionist 'muscular Jew.' Photographed living in Paris around 1905Credit: Getty Images

Most, if not all, of these new Israelis had no intention of immigrating to Israel as part of their naturalization process, raising questions about whether they exploited the process merely to become Olympians. In their defense, their supporters claim that these Diaspora Jews were expressing their love for Israel by leaving it all out on the diamond, determined to bring the Jewish State Olympic glory.

Let’s be clear: The team's historic fifth-place result reflects absolutely no Israeli athletic achievement. If anything, there is only the logistical achievement involved in putting the team together.

While a few Israeli-born-and-bred players were, indeed, on the roster, it's wishful thinking to view them as much more than tokens of the small and underdeveloped baseball scene in the country (full disclosure: this author used to be part of this scene and grew up playing with some of these players).

Zach Penprase of Israel scores a second run in the game against the Dominican Republic at the 2020 Tokyo OlympicsCredit: JORGE SILVA/ REUTERS

In reality, the real Israeli national team – i.e. the one comprised of players whose Israeliness goes beyond their recently-minted passports – is ranked 24th in the world and wouldn't have had the slightest chance of qualifying for one of the six Olympic slots had American players not taken over the roster.

In this sense, the claim that this team has next to nothing to do with Israel is perfectly justified. These players are totally American. But that's missing the point of what's so amazing about them: They're all Jews.

The love affair between American Jewry and one of America's favorite pastimes goes back more than 100 years. American Jews love sports in general, but the on-field success of Jews in baseball is exceptional.

A religious minority that makes up around 2 percent of the U.S. population has produced stars across generations – among the outstanding examples from the past are Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, and more contemporary stars include Ian Kinsler, Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Braun – a four-time All-Star, a world champion, and an Israeli-born National League Most Valuable Player, respectively.

The Israeli contingent parading at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Credit: MIKE BLAKE/ REUTERS

A hypothetical lineup including the latter three would have, until recently, been considered among the best in the sport. The Tokyo Olympics have proven that a team consisting of players from only a tiny minority from one country is good enough to compete against the best nations in the world. For some perspective: This reality is less likely than Yeshiva University being ranked a top 10 team in NCAA college football.

A broader look at the Olympics shows that while Israel enjoyed an extremely successful showing in Tokyo, relative to expectations, that success is dwarfed by the individual achievements of Jewish-American athletes like Mark Spitz,  Dara Torres, and Lenny Krayzelburg

The lesson to be learned from their success is that Max Nordau was wrong. The revitalization of the 'Jewish spirit,' particularly through sports, does not require subjugation to the Zionist ethos, or in plainer terms – being Israeli.

There is often a feeling among Israeli Jews, particularly those who immerse themselves in the writings of Zionist thinkers like Nordau, most famously A.B. Yehoshua, that their Diaspora counterparts remain incomplete as long as they don't live in Israel and take part in the building of the Jewish nation-state. The success story that is American Jewry, with Jewish baseball and this particular Olympic team serving as great examples, shows Zionist purists that there is an alternative to Jewish fulfillment that has nothing to do with Israel (or with religion).

Ian Kinsler of Team Israel rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the third inning of a baseball game against South Korea at the 2020 Summer Olympics last month in Yokohama, Japan.Credit: Sue Ogrocki,AP

Second baseman Ian Kinsler is a great case in point. In the 2017 World Baseball Classic, baseball's equivalent of the World Cup, Kinsler, who earned more than $100 million during his playing career, had the option of playing either for a stacked Team USA or for Team Israel (which in this case was also made up of Israelis-in-name-only who didn't even have citizenship). Back then, Kinsler preferred to represent the United States. But this time around, he chose Israel.

This isn't opportunism, as Kinsler could have just as easily played on an American Olympic team with a much better chance of medaling. But it also isn't Zionism, considering that Kinsler hasn't expressed much interest in Israel outside of this experience and has no intention of moving to the country. It should be interpreted instead as an expression of his strong dual identity as an American Jew.

Kinsler fulfilled himself in a way that would have left Nordau confounded – becoming the ultimate symbol of Jewish brawn while choosing to maintain his diasporic identity. His success, along with that of American Jews as a collective, is a reminder to Israelis: We, proud U.S. Jews, don't need your help; we're doing perfectly fine over here. In fact, as Tokyo has proven, sometimes you need us more than we need you.

Iddo Schejter is a web editor on the Haaretz English desk.