Girls on Mixed-gender Basketball Teams in Israel Barred From Playing Against Religious Boys' Teams

It turns out the Israel Basketball Association requires girls who want to play in boys’ leagues to sign a form agreeing that they won’t play against religious-boys’ teams if the opponents haven’t approved it

File photo: An Israeli boy wearing a basketball-themed yarmulke shoots a basketball in Jerusalem.
Tara Todras-Whitehill (AP)

Noam, 13, has been playing for three years on youth teams in the Negev town of Lehavim. In the absence of a girls’ team in the community, Noam received permission from the Israel Basketball Association's exceptions committee to join the boys’ teams as a full-fledged player, along with another girl.

But the two rarely play, and not due to a lack of talent, failure to show up for practice or a lack of respect from the coach. They’ve spent a few games on the bench only because they’re girls; Lehavim is part of a league in which there are also religious-boys’ teams.

It turns out the IBA requires girls who want to play in boys’ leagues to sign a form agreeing that they won’t play against religious-boys’ teams if the opponents haven’t approved it. A failure to keep the promise results in a forfeit. According to the IBA, about 15 girls play on nine mixed-gender teams.

According to IBA regulations, every boys’ team is allowed to include two girls; the girls and their parents must sign a document in the presence of a lawyer. In addition, a boys’ team that wants to include girls must submit an affidavit to the IBA.

The case of the two girls in Lehavim became public when the mother of one of their male teammates published a post on Facebook after a game against the boys’ team from the South Hebron Hills. The secular caucus in the Knesset, headed by Meretz chief Tamar Zandberg, the group the Secular Forum and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel turned to the Culture and Sports Ministry and the IBA, demanding that the regulations be changed, citing gender discrimination.

“We’ll handle this situation,” Zandberg says. “We’ll remind whoever needs reminding that secular men and women have values too: equality and respecting a human being as such.”

Liza, Noam’s mother, adds, “Every year we have to sign this document. This is the third year that the girls aren’t participating in games against religious teams.”

The case of Noam and her friend isn’t the first. In 2013 there was a report about a 10-year-old girl who didn’t receive permission to play with a team, Maccabi Alfei Menashe, against Elitzur Ra’anana. The rival team said that letting her play was like “a competition between dogs in which you want to include horses.”

But the IBA promised that the regulations would be changed for the following season, adding, “Either there will be no possibility of letting boys and girls play together, or a more creative solution will be found.”

No new mixed league

A proposal for solving the problem was already raised back then – the establishment of a new mixed league for boys and girls, but the idea was shelved. The IBA says that only five teams registered for the mixed league, from various areas around the country, so the teams would have had to travel long distances.

“The basketball association gave in to the dictates of hardalim – ultra-Orthodox elements in religious Zionism who are systematically working to create a situation of gender separation,” says the chairman of the Secular Forum, Ram Fruman. “It’s happening in the army, in the school system and now in sports competitions for teenagers as well.”

The main reason for the girls’ requests to join boys’ teams is a dearth of basketball opportunities for girls. Even when there’s a team, it may not offer a competitive level suitable for a girl who really wants to develop.

Israeli basketball player Naama Shafir in 2017
Nir Keidar

A perfect example of that is Naama Shafir, a star of the Israeli women’s league who also plays for the national team. Until eighth grade she played on the boys’ team at Hoshaya, a religious communal settlement in the Lower Galilee.

“It helped me a great deal,” she told Haaretz’s Hebrew edition in 2013. “In religious terms, it didn’t bother anyone.”

Those 15 girls who play on mixed teams play on nine different teams; they come from communities where there’s no girls’ squad. It’s not clear whether the small number of female players stems from a lack of access rather than a lack of demand, as the IBA claims.

In the basketball leagues for teenagers and adults, the teams are divided based on gender, so whether boys will play against girls is irrelevant. When it comes to young kids, the challenge is greater. Parents say creative solutions are found, initiated by parents and coaches both secular and religious.

A compromise of two quarters

One example, says Noam’s mother, was the inclusion of a religious boy who is strict about not coming into physical contact with girls. Thus the boy would play two quarters and Noam would play in the other two quarters. This was done without the IBA’s intervention.

Last year the team played in a league where there were two religious teams; as a result, the girls didn’t play in eight games, Liza says. “This year we switched to a different league with only one religious team, so our girls were left out of only two games,” she says.

“It’s a very frustrating situation. But because Noam gets respect and professional experience on her team, and switching to a girls’ team in another city requires a new environment, trips on public transportation and maybe even a decline in the level of play, the possibility of switching her to another girls’ team looks less good.”

Although Noam herself respects the religious prohibition, she’s frustrated about having to simply watch games from the bench. “I’m not angry at the religious teams. If they can’t play against girls, I’m not the one who’ll prevent them from playing. Everyone has to live by his own faith,” she says.

“But the fact that we don’t play in several games makes some of the boys on the team think we’re not as good as them. Most of the kids respect and encourage us.”

The chief executive of the Israel Basketball Association, Yaakov Ben Sasson, said in response that “the need to start mixed basketball teams came up due to the inability of communities to start teams for girls only due to a lack of response and an inability to form a sufficiently large team, and not to prevent female players from playing in competitive frameworks.”

As he put it, “In districts where mixed teams play there is also a small number of religious teams that asked to not have games against mixed teams. Because it’s impossible to start a mixed league, it was decided not to include the girls in games, while they have to sign an agreement not to join those games out of consideration of the feelings of the religious community. There are two to four games [where they can’t play] out of more than 20 games in an entire season.”

The IBA did not respond to Haaretz’s question on who initiated the approval by the exceptions committee, when it was done, and at whose request.