Cheryl Levi
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When the battlefield is the basketball court

The Irish women's team refused to shake hands with the Israel's team, leaving the Israelis no choice but to win a decisive victory
Members of the Israeli National Women's Basketball Team celebrate after defeating Ireland in Riga, Latvia, February 8, 2024. (X screengrab, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the copyright law)
Members of the Israeli National Women's Basketball Team celebrate after defeating Ireland in Riga, Latvia, February 8, 2024. (X screengrab, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the copyright law)

Last Thursday night, I entered my son’s room and found him engrossed in a game of women’s basketball. My son is a huge sports fan, but I did not know he was a fan of women’s basketball, so I inquired as to why he was so drawn to this game. He explained that the national Irish women’s basketball team had originally refused to play the Israeli team. Clearly, they eventually changed their minds, and my son was watching in hopes of seeing the Israeli women’s basketball team crush Ireland.

I sat down next to him. To be honest, I am not a basketball fan, but at that moment I became one. It was the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) 2025 EuroBasket qualifiers game, and, like my son, all I wanted to do was watch Israel defeat Ireland.

The Irish team had been convinced by Irish pro-Palestinian groups and athletes like Kieren Donaghy to refuse to play against Israel. Donaghy critiqued FIBA for allowing a “country committing genocide” to compete in these games. He called it a “scandal in itself.” The criticism grew when the Israel Women’s National Basketball team posed for pictures with IDF soldiers.

When Ireland decided to pull out of the game, the International Federation responded. If they refused to play, they would be severely penalized. They would be unable to play on an international level for five years, and they would be fined 80,000 euro, and another 100,000 euro if they refused again later in the year. Basketball Ireland chief executive, John Freehan, decided that this would set back the team for years. They would lose a generation of players. Ireland had to play.

Irish politician Leo Eric Varadkar agreed with Freehan. He did not believe that their basketball team should harm themselves by boycotting the game. He explained, “It’s one thing to expel Russia or expel Israel from certain sporting events or certain music events or contests, and I think that may well be appropriate, but for us to remove ourselves actually isn’t a good idea, in my view, because all we do is disadvantage ourselves.”

Apparently, the unfair comparison between Russia and Israel sits well with Varadkar. It is inconsequential to him that Russia’s war against Ukraine is an offensive one. Russia was not attacked. Innocent Russian citizens were not murdered, raped, and mutilated. Russia just wanted to take over Ukraine. Israel, on the other hand, was attacked in the most vicious of manners, and Hamas has vowed to repeat the attacks again and again. Israel’s war is a defensive one. To compare the two wars is misplaced and misinformed. To speak of both countries in the same sentence is highly unjust. And in doing so, Varadkar, and all those who agree with him, like the Irish Basketball Association and their players, are exposing their own vast ignorance.

Armed with that ignorance, Ireland begrudgingly sent their team to Latvia (Israel’s wartime basketball court) to play against Israel. Five of their players, however, boycotted the game, and the Irish Basketball Association protested to being forced to play Israel.

The Israeli basketball team has something to say about this scandal. The head coach Sharon Drucker said that the Irish “didn’t respect what the sport symbolized.” Dor Sa’ar, one of their players, stated:

It’s known that they (the Irish team) are quite antisemitic and it’s no secret, and maybe that’s why a strong game is expected. We have to show that we’re better than them and win. We talk about it among ourselves. We know they don’t like us, and we will leave everything on the field always and in this game especially.

For the Israelis, this game would play out on the basketball court as it should be and not in the media or in the offices of FIBA.

The Irish team was inexplicably astounded by the accusation of antisemitism. They immediately filed an official complaint with the organizers of FIBA Europe. They claimed, “Basketball Ireland is extremely disappointed by these accusations, which are both inflammatory and wholly inaccurate.” Perhaps they made this statement around the time they were planning to refuse to shake hands with the Israeli players at the beginning of the game.

So, the game was on. The Irish team refused to exchange gifts and shake hands with the Israeli team (a decision that was fully supported by Basketball Ireland). They also sat on the bench instead of standing center-court during the playing of Israel’s national anthem. It was a show of supreme unsportsmanlike behavior. In fact, let’s just call it what it was: antisemitism.

Members of the Ireland women’s basketball team, pictured before they faced Israel in EuroBasket qualifying, February 8, 2024 (X screengrab, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the copyright law)

The Israeli team, on the other hand, played the sport as it was meant to be played. And as I sat on the bed next to my son, I watched them win by 30 points. After the game, they surrounded themselves with Israeli flags and took pictures. By that point, my daughter and our 2-year-old Maltese, Zoey, had joined us. We all smiled (especially Zoey), and I stood up and clapped. The Israeli women’s basketball team made all of Israel proud that night.

Bringing a battlefield into a basketball court is like bringing a battlefield into a music festival. These are places people should feel safe. These are events that do not and should not relate to politics and war. The stands in Israel’s war-time basketball court in Latvia were empty for security reasons. That should not have to be the case.

The refusal of the Irish women’s basketball team to play against Israel is indicative of an even bigger problem as well. It’s a sign of the antisemitic rot that has been eating away at countries like Ireland for decades. Some claim that Ireland’s deep-seated antisemitism is due to its Catholic roots. But even as a secular country, Ireland has demonstrated disturbing antisemitic behavior. In 2021, the INSS and the Jewish Agency co-sponsored a report on antisemitism in European countries. The chapter on Ireland revealed extreme antisemitic remarks made by members of Parliament including describing the State of Israel as “Nazis” and calling for the destruction of Israel. Most recently, the new nationalist Northern Ireland prime minister, Mischelle O’Neil, claimed that she saw Hamas as a potential partner for peace. She called for a ceasefire and denied that Israel’s war was a war of defense. Ireland’s women’s basketball team’s reaction to playing against Israel was a clear manifestation of the hatred towards Jews and the State of Israel that has become a long-standing Irish tradition.

So how do we stand up to countries that have become synonymous with antisemitism? On the Tuesday before the game, the Israeli basketball player Sa’ar told the IBBA (Israeli Basketball Association), “Since October 7th, our lives have all changed, so since then it’s important to represent our country with dignity, fight on the field, and show that we are good and capable, and I believe that we can do it.”

It seems we have a lot to learn from Israeli women’s basketball. I am looking forward to watching their next game.

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About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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