NETANYA – As Niles Miller was en route to the United States in June, he received text messages from some of the girls he’d just been coaching for four months in a lacrosse under-15s program in Sha’ar Hanegev, near the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians firing missiles from Gaza had sent his former players and their families running for shelter.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ My heart went out to these girls,” said Miller this week, speaking at the Wingate Institute, Netanya, after returning to Israel to coach a youth program at the World Lacrosse Championship. Miller’s voice cracked and he started crying.
“These people are firing rockets at people I love. I’m like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ If [Israel] didn’t have the Iron Dome [anti-missile system], my kids would be killed.” He broke down again.
Miller, who is from New York and is not Jewish, said he’d come to the country understanding both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He held his right hand vertically, like a needle at a dial’s midpoint. Because of the attacks, “I’m now like this,” the 30-year-old said, tilting his hand until it was horizontal, indicating identification with Israel.
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In interviews at this week’s championship, foreign players, team officials and referees stated that they felt completely safe and expressed surprise at the normalcy of life and at Israel’s beauty. For nearly all of them, this was their first visit to Israel. Reality, they said, did not match the ominous headlines and television images of violence and conflict.
On the lacrosse side, people praised the seamless running of this major sports tournament, especially one in a sport new to the country.
“I had no idea Israel was like this,” an American woman told her companion in the VIP tent as Israel played Australia in the quarterfinals – a 9-6 loss for the blue-and-white.
The United States and Canada faced off in the championship game of the 46-nation event on Saturday morning at Netanya Stadium. In a tense finale, the Americans won 9-8 after a dramatic last-gasp goal by Tom Schreiber.
Australia and the Iroquois Nationals, a team of Native Americans, competed for third place on Friday evening: The Iroquois took home the bronze medal after triumphing 14-12.
After losing to Australia and Japan in consecutive games, Israel won its final championship game 12-1 against Puerto Rico late Friday afternoon, finishing seventh overall.
Among those cheering Israel was Elias Saba, a 19-year-old Israeli Arab from Jaffa who played in the Israel Premier Lacrosse League in 2016 and hopes to make the national team that will compete at the next world championship, in 2022 in Canada.
“To be a part of this, to see that it’s succeeding and taking flight, to see the growing of the game here in Israel – it’s heartwarming,” he said. “I’m one of the first Arabs who’s played [here], and I have such great Jewish friends from this [lacrosse] community." Saba said the sport "helps people get their aggression out on the field, so then maybe off the field they’ll see each other as friends.”
The Czechs’ general manager, Pavel Semerak, said that back home he and his compatriots get a broad view of Israel, and of life in Jerusalem, thanks to a television correspondent who reports on more than Gaza.
“We know about Israel’s huge tech industry, that Israel’s army is among the best in the world,” Semerak said Wednesday as his team headed off to play Belgium. “The conflict is just a small part of the life of Israel,” he added.
One of the most dramatic moments of the tournament occurred before the opening ceremony, when the Iroquois Nationals nearly didn’t make it. It would have been a major setback, with the Iroquois ranked third in the world. The delegation was held up at Toronto’s airport because its travel documents were incomplete. The team landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport only six hours before the opening ceremony.
'Build bridges, not walls'
Jim Scherr, the Federation of International Lacrosse’s chief executive officer, told Haaretz another factor also accounted for the Iroquois’ delay: pressure from the BDS movement.
The Iroquois “received a letter to boycott,” Scherr said during the Israel-Australia game. “They decided not to. It was the right decision.
“We really believe that through sports we build bridges, not walls, between people. Besides, boycotts don’t work,” he added.
One person who knew how to build bridges was Orde Wingate, a British general in World War II who helped shape pre-state Israel’s military in the 1930s. The Wingate Institute is named for him – a fact holding particular meaning for Rick Summers, an assistant coach with Wales’ team.
Summers’ given name is Orde. His late father, Harry, an observant Jew, admired Wingate as “a guy who stood up for what he believed in and had principles,” said Summers, a Manchester resident who played for England in the 1982 and 1986 world championships. He’s read books and articles on his namesake, whom he considers “astute, daring.”
Whenever Summers runs into his old lacrosse pals, they call him "Ordy Boy,” he said, adding, “The history behind my first name is something I have always been proud of.”
Another Manchester resident, Phil Pearson, is the referee-in-chief here. Pearson said it would be "naive" to say that his team of 90 referees “didn’t look at the travel advice and warnings” after Israel was awarded the championship in early 2017.
But the concern was largely unwarranted, given that they are far from Gaza and other danger spots, he said.
Scherr, meanwhile, admitted that “obviously there were some security concerns expressed to us by our member nations,” but no countries considered withdrawing.
“One thing an event can do is give a viewpoint of Israel they don’t normally see on the mainstream media. It’s been a great event,” said Scherr. Next year’s European women’s championship will be held in Tel Aviv, and a European men’s championship could be next, he noted.
This week's experience in Netanya “gives us the confidence they can handle this event,” he added.
Said Pearson: “If people have negative perceptions of being here, [exposure to Israel] will break that down. I’ll go back with a very positive viewpoint. In the press, you can either listen to the negative or find the positive. Here it’s been positive, positive, positive.”
As to what comes next after Netanya, Israel Lacrosse Association Executive Director Scott Neiss said he and other international lacrosse officials hope their sport will be reintroduced to the Summer Olympics by 2024. By the 2028 Olympics, he said, “Our goal is to win a gold medal.”
He was not joking.
“We want to be the national sport of Israel. That’s not a dream; it’s a goal,” he declared. “If this team wins a gold medal, this country will go batshit.”
Celebration wasn’t uppermost in what the association’s chief operating officer, David Lasday, witnessed after Wednesday night’s game: A 15-year-old boy was sobbing at Israel’s loss. To Lasday, that was a good sign.
“We’re always talking about how to grow the game in Israel,” said Lasday. “This was meaningful. He cared.”