David Blatt has not yet won the NBA championship but his achievements to date are astonishing. The coach of a basketball team in the Mideast succeeded as the coach of a prestigious team in the Midwest and in getting all of America to take notice. And now he’s taken the Cleveland Cavaliers into the NBA finals. Even if the team doesn’t win, this is a phenomenal accomplishment. The Israeli-American guy who remained in Israel after the 1981 Maccabiah Games and began his career with Maccabi Haifa has reached the pinnacle of international basketball.
What’s interesting about Blatt’s Cinderella story from the Israeli perspective is that only a year and a half or two years ago, he was being vilified here day and night. When Maccabi Tel Aviv ran into trouble in the middle of last season, the media lynched the Boston-born coach. Many people affiliated with Maccabi — executives, players and fans — heaped scorn on him. He was perceived as too expensive, too arrogant and too American. He wasn’t chummy enough. He didn’t go out to eat hummus with the guys. In a way that is difficult to describe today, the coach who two weeks from now might win the most prestigious basketball title in the world was seen by many Israelis as not good enough for the Israeli team that has been on the ropes ever since he left it.
The David Blatt story is not only an amazing story about him, but also a sad story about us. Israel is such an impressive place, full of vitality, charm and talent. But it’s also seriously plagued with negativity and cynicism.
Hoser firgun — that is, the inability to take pleasure in another person’s accomplishments — is our incurable disease. Acidic interpersonal relations are our collective ulcer. It eats our heart out to say something good about somebody else. It kills us to admit that one of us is terrific. From morning till night we take potshots at each other. Year after year we slog through the toxic swamp of gossip, jealousy, slander and defamation.
Up to a point, Israeli cynicism is positive; there’s something democratic about it. After all, we all sat on the same potty in preschool. We all ate from the same mess tin during basic training. We have no king, nobility or aristocracy. We are all exposed to the same verbal fire from the same unmerciful firing squad. Fine. But from that point onward, the meanness poisons our wells. The nastiness doesn’t allow us to drink the water, breathe the air or simply live.
We burn our public figures at the stake. We throw stones at entrepreneurs and other successful people. We put the quiet heroes of the state, our security forces, science and culture, on ice floes and set them adrift. We don’t know how to thank those who enrich and facilitate our lives. Alongside the just battle we are conducting against the corrupt and the crooked, we are fighting an unjust and unending war against everyone whose special qualities don’t agree with us and whose success threatens our status. It isn’t a 21st-century Hyde Park that we’ve created here, but rather a provincial and violent shtetl that conducts digital lynchings and slams with a sledgehammer any nail that dares to look different or to stick out too much.
David Blatt’s success in the 2014/15 season is poised to be part of the success story of Cleveland, which lost its luster over the past half-century and is now trying to rehabilitate itself. So that Israel can also rehabilitate itself, it must address not only its socioeconomic and foreign-relations problems, but also the problem of its internal spitefulness. A little less toxicity, please, a little less malevolence and cynicism. Let’s live and let live in this country. Let us see the good, appreciate the good and celebrate the good. Let us breathe.