I am a Johnny-come-lately to the World Baseball Championship (WBC), but I woke up early enough on Sunday morning to witness Team Israel’s sensational 4-1 win over Cuba. Anyone who would have predicted such a result at any point before the current WBC got under way would have been advised to seek professional help. It’s being dubbed a Cinderella story, a David-and-Goliath tale or, to my mind, a baseball version of the Mouse that Roared.
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As most everyone knows by now, however, it’s not really Team Israel that’s playing out there, but rather American Jews with professional baseball experience posing as Team Israel. This has sparked conflicting emotions among die hard fans as well as detached spectators. Writing in the Guardian, Les Carpenter compared the Israeli team to the Georgian beach volleyball squad in the 2008 Olympics, which was exclusively made up of Brazilians, describing Team Israel’s success as a “cute farce but still a great story.” My colleague Simon Spungin cited the precedent of the 1988 bobsled team from Jamaica, immortalized in the film Cool Runnings, although they, as he points out, were really from Jamaica. The Israeli team, on the other hand, is “as American as apple pie and fake news,” he wrote.
My own reactions were mixed. As someone who spent childhood years in Los Angeles worshipping Sandy Koufax as a god, I was happy. As an Israeli who is well aware of my compatriots’ penchant for what we call the kombina, which is a kind of deceptive scheme, I was amused by the fact that Israel was being represented by players with such typical Israeli names as Craig Breslow, Ryan Lavarnway or Dylan Axelrod. And as a Jew with centuries of worried forefathers behind him, I was concerned that this too could end with an outburst of anti-Semitic allegations and insinuations, first in Cuba and then throughout the baseball-playing world.
It’s true that WBC rules weirdly allow players who are eligible for citizenship in a country to play for that country, but let’s not kid ourselves: the Law or Return makes Israel’s case unique. No other country grants automatic citizenship by virtue of religion of parents or grandparents alone. We may view it as a natural expression of the eternal link between Jews and their Promised Land, but one can hardly blame others if they take a more cynical view of a baseball team that uses God’s Covenant with Abraham as a pretext for manning their pitching roster. If I were Cuba or the Netherlands or any other country taking part in the WBC, I would henceforth grant automatic citizenship to anyone who’s ever played Major or Minor League Baseball. That’ll show those shifty Jews.
At the same time, using Americans to allow Israel to punch above its weight in sports isn’t new: Israeli basketball has been doing it for decades. The Golden Age of Israeli basketball in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then again in the first decade of this century, when Maccabi Tel Aviv was one of the top teams in Europe, was made possible by two types of Americans: Jews who came on aliyah and were instantly made citizens and non-Jewish professional wannabes who almost made it in the NBA. When Trenton-born guard Tal Brody gave one of the most memorable Zionist statements of all time following Maccabi’s historic 1977 win over CSKA Moscow – “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything” - his Hebrew was draped in the heavy American accent that usually sounds completely ridiculous to native-born Israelis.
But even in basketball, which is a thousand times more popular in Israel than baseball, the heavy American presence on Israeli squads sparks perennial griping. Importing Made in USA talent impedes the growth of Israeli talent, the critics complain. True patriots would rather lag behind with a genuine Israeli team than lead the league with squads that are Israeli in name and not much else, they moan.
But let’s face it: Israel could never manufacture basketball players that would come anywhere close to NBA rejects, just as it couldn’t produce a baseball team that would beat Cuba 4-1 even in a million years. In fact, while Israel’s most favored professional sport is soccer and theoretically it should produce world class soccer squads, the last and only time the country participated in a World Cup was in 1970. Why not bring Kyle Beckerman in, when he’s free? And while we’re at it, New Orleans’s Erik Lorig, Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson, free agent Taylor Mays and others could almost– but not quite – field a presentable 11 man Jewish NFL squad called the Israel Izzies or something.
There are many areas in which Israelis are definitely and infinitely superior to American Jews – growing tomatoes, paddle ball on the beach, hi-tech wizardry and policing the West Bank, for example – but the opposite is also true, though Israelis might not admit it. If you adopt the WBC principle that theoretical eligibility for citizenship is sufficient for representing Israel, the possibilities of enlisting American Jews, and thus significantly enhancing and improving Israeli performance in a variety of fields, can sound very tempting.
American Jews have won over a hundred Nobel Prizes, but Israel has 11 and one shouldn’t get greedy. But how about an Oscar, which we’ve been waiting for about 5000 years? Can’t Woody Allen direct a sexy comedy with Jake Gyllenhall and Scarlett Johansson that would represent Israel at the Academy Awards? Maybe David Guetta can be persuaded to produce a hit combo for a supergroup with Drake and Pink and Adam Levine to win an Israeli Grammy?
How about rabbis? Can we make someone like Conservative Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles or groundbreaking Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Bronx or LGBT champion Sharon Kleinbaum or others of their non-conformist ilk chief rabbis for a while, even by remote control, so they might rattle our petrified state religion and attract secular Jews to Judaism instead of repelling them, like the Israeli establishment does? If we need help in putting our finances in order, we can just appoint the Federal Reserve’s Janet Yellen and Stanley Fischer as package deal. And given the current effort by Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to turn Israel’s Supreme Court into a conservative stronghold, Israel can make emergency appointments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer to the Israeli tribunal. They can sit on cases by Skype, if they prefer.
Don’t forget, Chaim Weizman wanted to import Albert Einstein as Israel’s second President in 1952, and Benjamin Netanyahu tried the same trick with Elie Wiesel when he was desperate to prevent the election of Reuven Rivlin in 2014. So, by the principle of in for a penny, in for a pound, let’s go all the way: Appoint an American Jew as stopgap prime minister, just to put things in order. Both Israelis and American Jews will be eligible to vote. I suggest the first faceoff will have Bernie Sanders on the left facing off against Michael Bloomberg on the right, and let the best man win.
Some nudnik kibitzers will now complain that I’m leaving out journalists for selfish reasons and demand that they be included too. Indeed, there is a long line of prominent American Jewish journalists who could certainly raise the bar for people of my profession, including Thomas Friedman, David Remnick, Jeffrey Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, Bret Stephens, Roger Cohen and a multitude of others. But journalists are an exception: Many of them didn’t wait for a formal invitation and have been writing as if they’re Israeli anyway.