Winning and the Israeli Mentality

If our championship basketball team is made of foreigners who are stronger and faster than all Jewish players in the league, what makes the team Israeli?

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Will the success of Maccabi's black players lead to better treatment of black migrant workers in Israel?Credit: Eran Wolkowski

My friend M. and I watched Maccabi Tel Aviv’s basketball games. After praising the young men’s fighting spirit and perseverance, we asked ourselves, How it was that we are so good at basketball, which is only a secondary sport in Israel, while being terrible at soccer, which is so popular? M. said to me: We must admit that we’re not good at sports. It’s a matter of genetics. Sports are a physical thing first and foremost, and we’re short, weak and slow. For years we’ve never been able to beat the non-Jews at running, shooting or kicking.

So how is it that we beat Europe at basketball, and why did we fail in soccer? How it is that the best soccer coaches, with the most sophisticated methods, failed here? My friend M. believes that it is because of the mentality. He says that we have an independent mentality that is as hard as concrete and as strong as steel. We are not willing to give it up. Instead of learning the mentality of the non-Jews, we demanded that they learn ours, and that does not seem to be so simple.

I asked: How does our mentality differ from theirs? There is a yawning chasm between the two mentalities, my friend M. said. We believe in the Jewish mind, while they believe in hard work. We prefer the decisive, one-time brilliant insight to exhausting preparations, prolonged training and endless practicing. When our soccer player has this mentality, he goes downstairs to drink coffee in his slippers at ten in the morning and gets addicted to the pleasant phone calls that come afterward. He knows he doesn’t need to waste precious time on training and practice, since the Jewish mind will come up with a trick for him when it needs to. It worked in Entebbe and on the Mavi Marmara, so why shouldn’t it work in soccer?

All right, so it didn’t work. The FIFA World Cup games, which we call it the "Mondial" because of our Latin roots, will be held in less than a month. Because of our genetics and mentality, our team will not be there. M. said: Shall I tell you the truth? I feel relieved. I also have a tough time with our mentality. Watching our team is like watching yourself in an awkward situation, like eating in front of a mirror as the tehina drips onto your chin.

I asked my friend M. how it was that a basketball club from Asia with a mentality from Israel and players from the United States could win the European championship. What mentality from Israel, M. asked. There is no Israeli mentality on the Maccabi basketball team. The basketball club vowed it won’t operate under such a mentality. They did what CEOs do in a similar situation: They swapped out the Israeli players with their Israeli mentality for foreign players with a mentality from abroad. Everybody in basketball does it, he said. But what about us? I asked. What about our identity? What about commitment to the symbol, loyalty to the club? My friend M. waved his hand dismissively. Oh, that stuff, he said. They gave it over to the stands, to the sofas, to the sports pages. That’s where we maintain our mentality, with the tradition, the memories, the scarves and the songs that the players on the court don’t even know.

And how do we, in the stands and in front of the television, buy that?

Everybody buys it, not just us, M. said. They buy it all over the world. The players change and the team remains. There’s no identification with the players, just with the management. And believe me, M. said, that it feels very good to be the boss! You sit in front of the television like a plantation owner from Georgia a couple of centuries ago and tell your wife: I would sell this loser and buy that fellow. He’s no longer looking to identify with this loser, or with the other losers. After all, it will always be possible to buy somebody who is blacker, stronger and taller than the strong, tall black guy the other plantation owners bought.

The management cultivates this sweet illusion. It hints to the people in the stands at the Yad Eliyahu Sports Arena that the guys from Oklahoma are in actually secret Zionists who are wild about hummus and refuse to play on Memorial Day. The people in the stands love to be fooled like that. They know they are being fooled, and they want to be fooled. They want to believe that the tall guy from Detroit really was moved when he visited Auschwitz and that the guy from Arizona loathes Hapoel, and that both of them agree that land must never be returned in exchange for peace. Still, my friend M. said, I think they changed something here in the treatment of workers in general, and in the treatment black workers in particular. I am thinking of our unfortunate Eritreans and Sudanese, M. says with hope. One day, you too will be privileged to see President Shimon Peres calling them on the telephone. It’s too bad that they are not just a bit taller, M. said sadly. It’s too bad they don’t run faster. After all, they’re so skinny.

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