Opinion |

Israel's First Pro Basketball Player Just Came Out - but the Real Shock Came Next

When Uri Kokia told Israel's main sports channel he was gay, TV commentators quickly turned his brave announcement into racist nonsense

Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
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Basketball player Uri Kokia.
Basketball player Uri Kokia.Credit: Nir Shmul
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni

For the first time in the history of Israel's basketball premier league, a player has publicly come out as gay. Uri Kokia, who plays for 'Hapoel Ramat Gan-Givatayim,' came out during an interview last week on the Sports Channel. “This is something I have been thinking about for years,” he told the interviewer. “I have been out for a number of years to family and friends. It was important for me to do this.”

Kokia, 36, played at the highest level of the Israeli game for many years, appearing for the likes of Hapoel Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv. He was also a member of the national team for the 2009 European Championships.

It is no surprise, then, that his announcement grabbed most of the attention on the Sports Channel’s “Morning Sports” show on Sunday. A discussion about his precedent-setting move or his brave step would have sufficed, leaving you to dream that Israeli sport might witness even more inspiring personal moments like this.

Uri Kokia, left, playing for Hapoel Jerusalem.Credit: Nimrod Glickman

However, the panel wouldn’t leave it there. One veteran sports journalist explained that an act such as Kokia’s was far from the norm in Israeli soccer. “Most of the soccer players are of Mizrahi origin,” he said - referring to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin. “They come from a more conservative society, their families are more paternalistic. The difficulty of coming out within these families is more significant.”

The panel’s host actually picked up on this line of thought and ran with it. “I know that people will say, ‘Wow, that’s awfully racist’ – but it isn’t. That’s the reality. This is also a statistical reality,” he said.

I’ll save you the Google search: You won’t find any research supporting the claim that the Mizrahi society in Israel is more conservative or paternalistic than other “societies” in Israel. But the panelists don’t need proof. They grew up understanding that Mizrahi families are different by nature. These families aren’t smart enough to grasp the zeitgeist, are unable to handle liberal ideas – and that was enough our “experts.” They certainly don’t consider themselves racists. As they see it, they were simply giving it to us straight.

Besides, they embrace Kokia’s actions and respect him. They condemn the group of the Beitar Jerusalem team supporters who are anti-Arab, called La Familia, and they would certainly protest any booing of black players. “This has no place in our sport,” they would doubtless declare. But among friends in the studio, and when the discussion is about the Mizrahim – their moral compass goes awry.

The international homophobia of soccer

Until a week ago, men’s basketball in Israel was seen as 100 percent heterosexual. Then, we didn’t hear analyses about the demographic makeup of Israeli basketball players and what prevents them from coming out as gay. But when Kokia’s brave act (he’s Georgian – is that Mizrahi or Ashkenazi?) absolved “Ashkenazi and intelligent basketball” of guilt, the soccer of the masses also became primitive, as befits its plethora of Mizrahi Jews.

Uri Kokia, left, during a basketball game.Credit: Nir Keidar

The truth is that, in this regard, Israeli men’s soccer is exactly like its counterparts abroad. Coming out of the closet is virtually taboo in professional soccer, including in England – which is not suspected of being overly Mizrahi – as well as in Italy, Spain, France and Germany. And yes, the same is true for basketball in those exalted European countries. Statistics have won out there, too.

The dividing line for families who can or cannot accept people coming out does not run through ethnic origins. Stating that being Mizrahi makes it hard for thousands of soccer players to make their sexual orientation known is racist. This thinking, by its very nature, won’t tell us that families who reject a gay family member come from all sorts of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Worse, it will hide the parents who were able to accept their gay son or daughter – and there are plenty of them.

If all of this makes you cynical, you should watch the wonderful documentary “Say Amen” by Orthodox filmmaker David Deri, which details his coming out to his parents and siblings. He paints with impressive precision the picture they drew on “Morning Sport,” but slowly erases that with exceptional emotional intelligence, mainly showing that love is bigger than anything else.

You can also find Arisa Party, a Tel Aviv club that bills itself as “the world’s first gay Middle-Eastern party.” Look on YouTube and you’ll find songs by Omer Adam, Eden Ben Zaken, Margalit Tzanani, Sapir Saban and Zehava Ben – all Mizrahi Jews who didn’t hesitate to collaborate with the gay community, despite coming from a conservative and paternalistic society, of course. Go deeper, look further, talk to others, and then you will see that the ability to accept people who are different from you is not limited to color.

The attempt to blame all of society’s evils on the Mizrahim is never-ending. It goes on in politics, in culture and, yes, also in sport. But even the insistence on labeling racist acts as exactly that cannot be stopped. Racism doesn’t appear only in dark times, not only in government reports or in the utterances of some old folk. It is found in spontaneous moments like the one on “Morning Sport.”

Statements are frightening in their naivety when they are presented as undeniable fact. A racist consciousness has taken shape more than once in the name of free speech and the ability to offer an explanation. Even if it is not backed up, it feeds on every such moment and grows stronger in the wake of those who follow it. As a result, even 30 seconds of a morning program are of considerable significance.

Israeli soccer is a product of Israeli society. Everything you find there reflects a trend or a phenomenon or a dynamic that also exists beyond the 90 minutes. In addition, the conflicts you try to avoid in your private life also enter the stadium. Jews will play alongside and against Arabs on the pitch, and fans who try to differentiate themselves from them will come to the stadium, too.

Basketball player Uri Kokia. 'I have been out for a number of years to family and friends. It was important for me to do this.'Credit: Nir Shmul

When these things happen, ugliness is also revealed. And sometimes, the exact opposite also happens. Media figures are part of this. On a subject as sensitive as sport, you have to act intelligently, precisely and responsibly. The discussions, analyses and opinions go beyond the borders of Tel Aviv – and that is a rare privilege. Pohoryles, Zilberstein and Rotem Israel missed out on an opportunity in their quest for enlightenment and liberalism.

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