Analysis |

Israel's Success at the Olympics Reflects a Battle for the Country's Identity

By all means celebrate the triumph of gold medal-winning gymnast Artem Dolgopyat, but don’t forget the hurdles he and many other immigrants have had to overcome to be accepted in Israel

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Israeli gymnast Artem Dolgopyat celebrating his gold medal triumph in Tokyo earlier today.
Israeli gymnast Artem Dolgopyat celebrating his gold medal triumph in Tokyo earlier today.Credit: LOIC VENANCE - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Gymnast Artem Dolgopyat had never heard of Israel before he was told, at age 12, that his family was about to emigrate there. He was barely aware that his family was Jewish. As of Sunday morning, he’s an Israeli hero: Only the second Olympic gold medal winner in the country’s history, and its first-ever medal in a major sport such as gymnastics.

The moment the last gymnast competing in the final left the floor and victory was confirmed, Dolgopyat draped himself in two Israeli flags and dutifully took phone calls from the president and prime minister. “I fulfilled my dream to represent Israel,” he told Naftali Bennett.

Twelve years since his family made aliyah, he’s an Israeli success story. It could have so easily have been different.

Dolgopyat never went to an ulpan to learn Hebrew. He dropped out of two high schools in Israel and since the age of 16 focused solely on gymnastics. He picked up his Hebrew in the gym.

Not that there were many native Hebrew speakers there. His first coach was Andrii Grybanov, who trained him back home in Dnepropetrovsk (now Dnipro), and also emigrated from Ukraine to Israel after him. Grybanov connected him in Israel with Sergei Vaisburg, who is his coach to this day. His mentor, fellow athlete and surrogate older brother is Alex Shatilov, who arrived in Israel from Tashkent at age 15 and blazed a trail for him at the highest level of international competition.

Israel’s chronically underachieving sporting establishment will now take the credit, but this is the medal of the quiet, hard-working, Russian-speaking Aliyah. All Israel now knows his name. Last week, few Israelis could even pronounce it. And there was something so un-Israeli about the reserved way he celebrated his victory without any triumphalism, admitting in his first interview that it wasn’t his best performance, “but everyone is nervous in the final and make mistakes.”

His proud father, Oleg, who took a short break from work to comment on his son’s gold, said “he could have done a better routine.”

In some aspects, Israel’s treatment of immigrants has improved in recent times. A few decades ago, Dolgopyat would have been urged to Hebraize his name before representing Israel. In other aspects, though, much of the ugliness has remained.

Last week in the Knesset, former Shas minister Yaakov Margi, still smarting at his party’s new opposition status, taunted Yesh Atid lawmaker Vladimir Beliak: “You came here to a country where everything was ready for you.” The irony that Mergi himself was born in Morocco and that the Russian-born Beliak had spent over a decade serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and then as a Shin Bet security service operative, was apparently lost on him.

After Dolgopyat’s victory, Beliak tweeted, “I hope that all those rushing today to congratulate Artem Dolgopyat the champion won’t be silent tomorrow when racist politicians in the Knesset will once again besmirch the Aliyah from the former Soviet Union.”

That wasn’t the only Twitter spat surrounding Dolgopyat’s medal. Israel’s previous two medals in these Olympics were won on the first and second Saturdays of the Games, leading Religious Zionist MK Bezalel Smotrich to tweet on Sunday: “The first Olympic medal that wasn’t won in desecration of Shabbat. Finally I can also join the celebration and congratulations.”

Smotrich seemed oblivious to the fact that, if it were left to him, Dolgopyat wouldn’t have represented Israel to begin with – as he was in favor of abolishing the “grandchild” clause in the Law of Return, without which Dolgopyat would probably not have been eligible for Israeli citizenship.

A successful Olympics for Israel – and this is already its most successful with a total of three medals to date – is a rare moment of celebration for secular Israel. The second medal, a bronze won in the mixed judo team event, was especially poignant, being won by a group of male and female athletes competing together on Shabbat.

The fact that many felt it fit to note both facts shows just how deep the inferiority complex of secular Israelis currently is.

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko competing in the triple jump final earlier today. She came sixth, one place below her performance in Rio five years ago.Credit: DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS

Until 1992, Israel had never won an Olympic medal, and it’s a bit presumptuous to read too much into the still-small total haul since then of 12 (two gold, one silver, nine bronze). However, it’s telling that three-quarters of them have been won in just two sports: judo (six) and windsurfing (three). As is the fact that Dolgopyat’s medal is Israel’s first in gymnastics, and that no Israeli has ever stood on the podium by the Olympic pool or in the athletics arena.

There are plenty of nonsporting fields in which Israel excels, but the most lucrative sports, the ones that take decades of investment and perseverance, elude them.

In these Olympic Games, where Israel has fielded its largest delegation ever, three track-and-field athletes had a genuine sniff of a medal. Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko, who came sixth in the triple jump final on Sunday afternoon, is Israel’s most successful Olympic athlete ever. She is the only one to have qualified for more than one Olympic final (she came fifth in Rio five years ago). Lonah Chemtai Salpeter has a good chance of a medal in the women’s marathon on Saturday, while Selamawit Teferi competes in the women’s 5,000 meters final on Monday.

All have another thing in common: they are non-Jewish women who, after facing considerable bureaucratic hurdles, received Israeli citizenship after marrying Israelis. A medal for Salpeter or Teferi would further challenge the limited concept of Israeli citizenship.

Lonah Chemtai Salpeter celebrating a track victory in Berlin three years ago. She competes for Israel in the women's marathon on Saturday. Credit: Martin Meissner / AP

But without a doubt the most bizarre challenge to Israeli identity is the sight of the Israeli baseball team, most of whom have very little, if any, Hebrew and couldn’t even sing the national anthem at a recent training game in New York. Quite frankly, the team – which has lost two and won one of its games so far in Japan, and still has an outside prospect of a medal – makes a mockery of Israel’s citizenship laws.

Only four players on the team were born in Israel and spent any period of their lives in the country. The rest were “discovered” by the team’s American organizers and received Israeli citizenship, on the basis of their Jewish roots, without any commitment to Israel beyond being prepared to play for its baseball team in international tournaments. That works well for them, because evidently none of them are good enough to represent the country of their birth.

In the rather unlikely event that they win a medal in Tokyo, it will say absolutely nothing about Israeli sports – but a whole lot about the dysfunctional relationship between Israel and American Jews.

Israel's Mitchell Glasser is congratulated by teammates during the seventh inning of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games baseball round 1 game between Israel and Mexico at Yokohama Baseball Stadium in YokohaCredit: KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA - AFP

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