I have to be honest, there can’t be many articles written about baseball that have been penned by someone less of a fan of the sport than me.
I’ve even been to a handful of Major League Baseball games and a couple of minor league ones, but I came to the sport too late in life for it to have any chance of flowing in my British-Israeli arteries.
But the baseball I watched yesterday excited me. Not because of the skills on show, or even the drama on the field, of which there was plenty as the game finished 6-5, having gone to an extra innings.
What excited me was the fact that the team facing Korea in the Olympics was a Jewish team. Well, by name they are ‘Team Israel’, with each of them being citizens of the State, but most of them don’t live here, and only became Israeli citizens in order to compete in the Olympics.
But what makes this moment so poignant for me is the fact that the Jewish Nation is represented on the Olympic stage, alongside the other nations of the world, and what connects the team members is that they are all a part of the Jewish people.
The following quote from Shlomo Lipetz, one of four native-born Israelis in the squad of 24 players, reflects his awe, like mine, of the significance of this team:
“There is no other country like Israel that carries an identity as it does with Jews around the world. We’re not the only team here with citizens that don’t live in the country. There were other teams like Spain that had 22 Venezuelans and two Spaniards. But they didn’t have that connection. This wasn’t just a group of people, All-Stars who came together. It was people who all had a Bar Mitzvah. We were joking around that everyone will post their Bar Mitzvah photo.”
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Richard Gottheil was born in Manchester, England in 1862. He later moved to the USA and became a Reform Rabbi, a Professor at Columbia University and the leader of the American Zionist Movement.
What follows are excerpts from a piece that he wrote over 100 years ago, when Zionism as a political movement was still in its infancy. In it, he frames the Jewish people as a nation, no trivial supposition at a time when the Jews had seen themselves as merely a religious group.
I couldn’t find any evidence that Gottheil was a baseball fan, but maybe his move across the Atlantic at aged 11 gave him more time than me to truly connect to the game. But his words seem relevant to me today, when watching a team who range in age from 23 to 42, and includes eight players who have spent varying degrees of playing time in the major leagues, from 14 years to a solitary appearance.
The Aims of Zionism (1898)
…. Zionism also has its message. It wishes to give back to the Jew that nobleness of spirit, that confidence in himself, that belief in his own powers which only perfect freedom can give. With a home of his own, he will no longer feel himself a pariah among the nations, he will nowhere hide his own peculiarities – peculiarities to which he has a right as much as any one – but will see that those peculiarities carry with them a message which will force for them the admiration of the world. He will feel that he belongs somewhere and not everywhere. He will try to be something and not everything. The great word which Zionism preaches is conciliation of conflicting aims, of conflicting lines of action; conciliation of Jew to Jew. It means conciliation of the non-Jewish world to the Jew as well. It wishes to heal old wounds; and by frankly confessing differences which do exist, however much we try to explain them away, to work out its own salvation upon its own ground, and from these to send forth its spiritual message to a conciliated world.
But, you will ask, if Zionism is able to find a permanent home in Palestine for those Jews who are forced to go there as well as those who wish to go, what is to become of us who have entered, to such a degree, into the life around us and who feel able to continue as we have begun? What is to be our relation to the new Jewish polity? I can only answer, exactly the same as is the relation of people of other nationalities all the world over to their parent home. What becomes of the Englishman in every comer of the globe; what becomes of the German? Does the fact that the great mass of their people live in their own land prevent them from doing their whole duty toward the land in which they happen to live? Is the German-American considered less of an American because he cultivates the German language and is interested in the fate of his fellow Germans at home? Is the Irish-American less of an American because he gathers money to help his
struggling brethren in the Green Isle? Or are the Scandinavian-Americans less worthy of the title Americans because they consider precious the bonds which bind them to the land of their birth, as well as those which bind them to the land of their adoption?
…But I must not detain you much longer. Will you permit me to sum up for you the position which we Zionists take in the following statements:
We believe that the Jews are something more than a purely religious body; that they are not only a race, but also a nation; though a nation without as yet two important requisites – a common home and a common language.
We believe that if an end is to be made to Jewish misery and to the exceptional position which the Jews occupy – which is the primary cause of Jewish misery – the Jewish nation must be placed once again in a home of its own.
We believe that such a national regeneration is the fulfillment of the hope which has been present to the Jew throughout his long and painful history.
We believe that only by means of such a national regeneration can the religious regeneration of the Jews take place, and they be put in a position to do that work in the religious world which Providence has appointed for them.
We believe that such a home can only naturally, and without violence to their whole past, be found in the land of their fathers – in Palestine.
We believe that such a return must have the guarantee of the great powers of the world, in order to secure for the Jews a stable future.
And we hold that this does not mean that all Jews must return to Palestine.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Zionist program.
We take hope, for has not that Jewish Zionist said, “We belong to a race that can do everything but fail.”
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Endnote 1: It seems that the phrase ‘can do everything but fail’, referred to the Jewish people long before baseball became an Olympic Sport. At the time of writing, Team Israel have lost both of their opening games.
And yet this piece by Gottheil reaffirms for me the idea that the existence of the State of Israel can bring Jews together as a people, even when we don’t all live in one place. We can be proud of being Jewish, we can be proud of our country, and we can be proud of our baseball team.
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Endnote 2: Team Israel are currently a team made up entirely of Jews. At some point in the future, for the team to succeed in actually representing the State of Israel and all its citizens, it will need to include those of other religions and ethnicities that make up the State of Israel. Until such a time, the Jewish team represents the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, more than it represents the State itself.