Social Justice, Sport, and Judaism: A Position Statement

Rebecca T Alpert. Quest. Volume 71, Issue 2. 2019.

Introduction: Jewish Social Justice Values

Judaism is the religious and cultural system of people who have been identified as Jews from ancient times and throughout the world. According to current academic understanding, it may be more appropriate to refer to Judaism(s) in order to take into account the vast changes that have taken place over time and space both religiously and culturally. Although views on what is meant by social justice in contemporary Jewish thought vary, they are most often predicated on interpreting ancient core texts: the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), and later legal and cultural writings: the Mishnah, Talmud, and medieval commentaries. This position article will be based on my own interpretation of one of those key texts in the Talmud attributed to Hillel the Elder who lived in the first century before the Common Era: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, 1:14).

Although there is considerable debate about this maxim’s original meaning, it has been used in recent times by Jewish social justice activists to encourage Jews to fight against anti-Semitism both on their own behalf and with others who support them, and to encourage Jews to work for peace and justice on behalf of other oppressed groups (Butler, 2007; Rich, 1986). This is how it will be used in this essay, understood as a restatement of the Golden Rule as found in the Hebrew Bible, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Although this maxim is often interpreted to apply to individuals, I am using it to apply to oppressed groups. So for the purposes of this essay, defining social justice from a Jewish perspective means to understand what is necessary for one’s own group to survive and thrive with the ultimate goal of applying that understanding to the success and survival of other groups who are one’s neighbors. By neighbors, I mean that they, like the Jews, have experienced oppression. Oppression is defined by political philosopher Iris Marion Young to have five characteristics: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (Sartore-Baldwin, McCullough, & Quatman-Yates, 2017). Jews have experienced all of these in different times and places.

A related interpretation of the commandment to love your neighbor is also attributed to Hillel. When approached by a man who taunted him to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel is said to have replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary. Go and study” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Taking these texts complementarily, they provide a clear set of obligations: understand your own oppression, work to fight against it on your own and with others outside your group, and then apply those lessons on behalf of other oppressed groups.

Translating this set of values to the world of sport, we are aided by R. Scott Kretchmar’s interpretation of the ideas of the late twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1975). Buber famously described ideal human relationships as between “I and Thou,” or oriented to treating others not as instruments of one’s one desires and needs but as holy as oneself, a variation of the ideals of Hillel: becoming an “I” (or in this case a “we”) that respects oneself/one’s group in order to encounter a “Thou” (in this case another group) through what Buber calls meeting. As Kretchmar describes, the “I-Thou” relationship “is characterized by a basic honesty which prevails in personal encounter. There is no calculation about how one would like to appear to the other (seeming) but rather a direct and spontaneous meeting (being)” (Kretchmar, 1975, p. 19). While sports have frequently been the site of power struggles over differences—not only of individual athletes and teams but also differences based on race, religion, ethnicity and nationality, Buber’s philosophy as interpreted by Kretchmar encourages the opposite potential.

Sports are not always a place where these values come into play. They are often a site that breeds hatred of the other, an obsession with winning, militarism, and hyper-masculinization (Sartore-Baldwin et al., 2017). They are also a site where human differences like race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality can become the medium for an “us vs. them” mentality that breeds antipathy, and where exclusion, discrimination and power differences are exacerbated (Long, Fletcher, & Watson, 2017). That is why it’s important to imagine ways of promoting ethical values in sport, for which Judaism can be one source. And sport can, in turn, become a location where ethical values are realized and promoted. The Jewish values of self-respect and respect for other oppressed groups can promote social justice in sport.

If I Am Not for Myself

Because Jewish life has been primarily lived within Christian, Islamic, and secular societies, Jews have experienced the oppression of being a marginalized group. Often generically categorized as anti-Semitism, the oppression Jews have experienced is more complicated. Christian anti-Judaism that consists primarily of misconceptions about religious beliefs and practices is the oldest form of hatred against the Jews, but largely irrelevant in the realm of sport. The phenomenon of anti-Zionism (opposition to the existence of a Jewish state) is also of a different character, stemming from political concerns (Langmuir, 1990). Anti-Semitism, a category created by European race science in the nineteenth century, is the hatred of Jews based on racial differences that have been scientifically discredited. Yet racial hatred of Jews has persisted over time and while it reached its apex in twentieth century Europe it has yet to be eradicated.

What is central in discussing sport, Judaism and social justice is the racial stereotype of the hypo-masculine Jew, which was predominant in Europe and the United States during most of the twentieth century (Gilman, 1991). Jewish men were seen as effeminate and assumed to recoil from the sporting life. There is a common joke about the history of Jews in sports consisting of a slim pamphlet and a massive literature has been created to prove it false (Alpert, 2014). Although Jews primarily saw themselves as “the people of the book” and not “the people of the body” the stereotype belied Jewish physical capabilities and often marginalized them in the world of sports.

The Zionist movement in Europe in the late nineteenth century responded to this stereotype. Ironically, like the anti-Semites, Zionists also believed that European Jewish males were not tough enough and needed to leave Europe to learn to be “normal” and more masculine (Biale, 1992; Boyarin, 1997). To this end, muscular Judaism was developed by Zionist Max Nordau. Unlike muscular Christianity that sought to change Christian values to incorporate athletic achievement, muscular Judaism’s goal was to prove that Jewish men were real men who excelled at sport, and to encourage Jewish men to take up the sporting life. While Zionists believed that this effort could only be realized through emigration to Palestine, others sought to prove their masculinity by developing Jewish sporting groups in the European and American contexts. Clubs like HaKoah Vienna and organizations like the Maccabiah brought Nordau’s message to the public and served as a protest against the stereotyping of Jews as weak and not masculine.

HaKoah is the Hebrew word for strength. HaKoah Vienna was founded in 1909 in direct response to Nordau’s call for a muscular Judaism. Its founders, Jewish businessmen, were interested in changing the image of the Jewish body and also recognized that as anti-Semitism was on the rise Jews were more and more unwelcome in Aryan clubs. HaKoah sponsored a variety of team and individual sports. The men’s football and women’s swimming teams developed international reputations. They won championships, competed for Austria in the 1932 Olympics, and brought international fame by touring around the world. The men’s football team’s 1926 tour of the United States brought out unprecedented crowds (Gurock, 2008). The HaKoah teams proudly wore the Star of David and their uniforms were blue and white. They brought attention to Zionism and Jewish sports and gave lie to the stereotype of the weak Jew. Their accomplishments served as a protest against anti-Semitism in Europe, although they could do nothing to stop the terror of Nazism as it closed down avenues of Jewish participation. HaKoah was disbanded in 1938 when Hitler took over Austria. They did start over after World War II, eventually reacquiring their property and opening a new athletic center, but never at the same level (Bowman, 2011).

The athletes and organizers of HaKoah were instrumental in working with Yosef Yekutieli in founding the Maccabiah Games in Palestine in 1932. These games, named after the group of ancient warriors that fought to keep Palestine from Hellenistic rule in the second century before the Common Era, are a version of the Olympics for Jewish athletes. The Maccabiah, which still takes place in Israel today, originated as a protest against stereotypes of and restrictions against Jewish athletes in Europe (Jarvie, 2018).

For many Jewish men (and women) sport provided an opportunity not only to protest the denigration of Jewish manhood or as validation for the need to build a Jewish homeland, but also to prove their worthiness to be European or American. One of the earliest and most celebrated examples of this phenomenon was assumed to be Harold Abrahams, the British Jewish runner whose exploits at Cambridge and in the 1924 Olympics are portrayed in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Abrahams is represented in that film as a Jewish outsider whose running overcame anti-Semitism at Cambridge and made him a true Englishman. Although Abrahams was already well assimilated, did not experience extensive anti-Semitism at Cambridge, and identified more as an Englishman than as a Jew throughout his life (Dee, 2012), the film uses his example to address the broader story of competitive sport as a vehicle of assimilation for marginalized Jewish men in the early twentieth century (Hudson et al., 2005).

Unlike Abrahams, American Jewish immigrants of that era did use sport (primarily baseball, basketball, and boxing) as a way to overcome anti-Semitism and become accepted within American culture (Levine, 1992). For some this was a route to assimilation and leaving Jewish identity behind. But other American Jewish men (and some women) proved that they could adapt to American culture without losing their connections to their Jewish roots, and sports proved to be an important means of achieving this end, thus promoting social justice and equality.

The SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) basketball team is a powerful example of this phenomenon. The team was organized in 1917 in the Jewish immigrant neighborhood of South Philadelphia. They played under the aegis of the YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association), the Jewish equivalent of the YMCA, for several years. When the YMHA dropped the team’s sponsorship, they relocated to the SPHA community center, and adopted the acronym SPHAs. Their uniforms displayed SPHA in Hebrew letters. They mostly barnstormed, but their games in Philadelphia were held at the Broadwood Hotel and followed by a dance (several of the players were also in the band) where young Jews went for dates and to socialize (Stark, 2011). As Peter Levine noted, watching young Jewish men who were part of their community excel at basketball and achieve national prominence, “encouraged assimilation to unfold within the rich fabric of the ethnic, Jewish world in which they lived,” providing them with a realistic vision of being able to be at home in both worlds simultaneously (Levine, 1992, p. 73). They were one of the best semi-professional teams in that era, playing and often defeating the leading teams in the country, including the Harlem Renaissance and Original Celtics in the 1930s and 1940s (Stark, 2011). The rise of the professional basketball leagues in the 1950s ended their prominence.

The worlds of American boxing and baseball provided a similar outlet, but were more often opportunities to assimilate than to maintain cultural or religious identification as Jews. Both sports were associated with gambling and not considered respectable professions for Jewish men by the immigrant generation. For the next generation, however, both sports were ways to become Americanized. Boxing greats Benny Leonard and Barney Ross made American Jews proud and gave them opportunities to believe that the stereotype of the weak Jew could be displaced by the stereotype of the tough Jew (Levine, 1992).

In baseball, the first great Jewish player was Hank Greenberg. Because baseball was the American “national pastime,” his status mattered more than the heroes of boxing and basketball. He became a star for the Detroit Tigers in the depression era when Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic pronouncements filled the newspapers of that automobile industry-centered city. Greenberg came close to surpassing Babe Ruth’s home run record and led his team to the World Series. But he was also celebrated for his Jewish commitments: deciding whether he was going to play on the Jewish holidays (a front page news story about which he ultimately compromised); gracefully withstanding the anti-Semitic taunts of other players; claiming to hit home runs as blows “against Hitler” and being the first baseball player to enlist in World War II to fight against Hitler in a more direct way. His path was the perfect example of cultural adaptation—the true Jewish and American hero (Alpert, 2014; Kempner, 2001; Simons, 1998).

Neither Zionist protest nor cultural adaptation could have made a significant impact against the virulent form of oppression unleashed by National Socialism in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he used boycott of Jewish goods and services as part of his anti-Semitic campaign. German Jews were also barred from participation in sports clubs that became “Aryan only.” Aware that the Olympic Games were going to take place in Berlin in 1936, many Jewish organizations began to lobby that the games be moved. But ultimately the International Olympic Committee did not want to “politicize” the Games and accepted Hitler’s false promise that Jews would be allowed to compete (including German Jews), and were receiving fair treatment.

Subsequent efforts to encourage the United States to boycott that involved college presidents, politicians, and non-Jewish leaders in the world of athletics were also to no avail. Although the United States vote in the final deciding forum, the Amateur Athletic Union, was very close, the matter was settled and President Roosevelt decided not to intervene. United States participation validated other allied nations’ decisions to participate. Only Spain and the Soviet Union refused. The failure of the boycott sent a message to Hitler that he would not be opposed and provided a great opportunity to showcase Nazi accomplishments on the world stage, a true propaganda victory.

American Jewish athletes then needed to make individual decisions about whether they should boycott. The majority decided not to go to Berlin. These included track and field athletes Milton Green and Norman Cahners who responded to their rabbi Harry Levy’s request that they not go. Other track and field stars, Herman Neugass and Syd Koff also stayed home. Other boycotters included 1932 Olympic gold medal discus thrower Lillian Copeland, featherweight boxer Louis Gevinson, and the entire Long Island University Basketball team that included four Jews. Some Jewish athletes participated in a Jewish Olympiad “World Athletic Carnival” in New York that summer instead; still others substituted the Maccabiah Games in Palestine in 1935 for a chance to win medals. Jewish athletes from South Africa, Austria, Canada, Australia, France, and Denmark also boycotted. All lost opportunities to reach the apex of their sports experiences, but none regretted their choices (Gottlieb, 1972; Guttmann, Kestner, & Eisen, 2000).

Some Jewish athletes did participate in Berlin, deciding that would send a more powerful message, not unlike the one promoted by Zionist muscular Judaism or American cultural adaptation. Although some did participate successfully, even some of those who went had their participation canceled at the last minute in response to Nazi pressure (Levine, 1992).

Jews in U.S. sports in the early twentieth century were part of a larger Jewish effort to fight anti-Semitism through peaceful protest, self-actualization and provided important examples of how standing up for the right to human dignity and respect could take place through exemplary sports figures.

Unfortunately, none of these modes of peaceful protest against oppression were present when the Olympics became the site of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict in Munich in 1972. The heinous Palestinian terrorist plot to kidnap 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics drew the world’s attention to the plight of the Palestinian people on a very public stage. The attack resulted in a botched German effort to save the innocent athletes who had been taken hostage, the deaths of all the athletes, and later the Israeli government’s retaliation that killed over 200 innocent Palestinians and several attempts to assassinate members of the Black September group that sponsored the massacre. This sporting experience added to a prevalent view in the Jewish community that they had to only “be for themselves,” isolated from the rest of the world.

Who Will Be for Me?

There have been a variety of instances in the world of sport where other groups and individuals have responded to the Jewish experience of oppression with support that illustrate the idea that if an oppressed group stands up for itself others will follow. One example was in 1935 when many secular organizations and governments encouraged a boycott of the Nazi Olympics. After World War II little was left of European Jewish communities, but some survivors remained and have rebuilt a Jewish presence. Anti-Semitism still persists in the world of European football, and a variety of efforts have been made by non-Jews to counter it.

Since the late nineteenth century, several football teams in Europe have inexplicably been identified as “Jewish.” Most often this is unrelated to the constituency of the fan base, players or ownership, although these teams have certainly had Jewish fans, players, and owners. Teams that were understood as Jewish included the Tottenham Spurs, Ajax Amsterdam, Bayern Munich, Austria Vienna, MTK Budapest, and AS Roma. While these team’s opponents often refer to them as “Yids” pejoratively, fans and players have embraced their “Jewish” identity. The fans carry Israeli flags, and have taken on a derogatory term for Jews, Yids, or even the more debasing “Yiddos” and used it affirmatively, as gays have done with “queer” and blacks with the N-word. They have come to identify as Yids and to fight against the prevalent racism of other European football fans, often referred to as hooligans or ultras. While this turning around of stereotypes is a powerful response to counter European anti-Semitism, there is something demeaning about it. Franklin Foer (2005) compares this to all the North American teams with native names, and John Efron (2006) calls it a version of minstrelsy. However, Jews have not demanded an end to the practice, nor have demeaning or stereotypical images been deployed by these fans. But as Foer points out this confirms that Jews are still among Europe’s outsiders.

It is not surprising that the fans would want to defend the Jewish culture they had adopted as their own. The blatant anti-Semitism of fans of opposing right-wing teams that chant “the trains are leaving for Auschwitz,” “the ovens are your homes,” “dirty Jewish pigs,” and make hissing noises that are supposed to sound like Zyklon B gas is deeply alarming and worthy of countering by fans of the teams that are on the receiving end of this verbal abuse (Foer, 2005).

A 2017 anti-Semitic incident in Italy where fans of the Roman team Lazio posted stickers with the image of Anne Frank wearing the colors of A.S. Roma raised awareness of the depth of anti-Semitism in Italian society. In response, newspapers published images of Anne Frank wearing a variety of Italian jerseys with the headline, “We Are All Anne Frank.” The Lazio team wore shirts with Anne Frank’s image and the words “No to anti-Semitism” while the public address announcer read from Frank’s diary before the game. Yet Lazio’s fans persisted in chanting Mussolini’s slogan, “I don’t give a damn.” Despite all the efforts to counter anti-Semitism, it is alive in Europe and manifested tellingly in sport (Horowitz, 2017).

The final example of outsider support for justice for Jewish concerns in the realm of sports is the initiative known as Football 4 Peace (F4P). Researchers at the University of Brighton (and later in conjunction with the British Council) initiated this program in 2001 to improve the relationship between Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants within the State of Israel. The program was predicated on the idea that for lasting peace to occur in the region, Jews and Palestinians within the recognized borders of Israel had to forge attitudes of mutual respect (Sugden, 2006).

The project began as the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) was reaching its height, hence a time of deep mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians, and a growing resistance among the non-Jewish population in Israel to their status. The original plan was to create a partnership between predominantly Jewish and Arab towns in the Galilee (Northern Israel). But the Jewish group withdrew, leaving the project to go on between Christian and Muslim Arabs. In the second year, F4P did include Jewish children. Local participation of parents and coaches was a key factor in ensuring success, and the program continued to grow until 2005 (Sugden, 2006).

As they began to analyze the results, however, it became clear that while Arab and Jewish children were playing together and developing football skills, they were not doing well in the “off-pitch” activities. The project directors developed a new coaching manual that emphasized “neutrality, equity and inclusion, respect, trust and responsibility” and provided activities through which those values could be expressed on and off the pitch. The organizers concluded that this program successfully built bridges and many children and adults “broadened their horizons” through the contacts they made across differences. But the conflict in Gaza in 2006 brought the effort to a close, and organizers ultimately called it another “failed peace initiative in the Middle East” (Sugden, 2006).

Project organizers were left with fundamental questions about how to do conflict resolution, even among citizens of the same country, when a conflict raged on. In their final report, they noted that trying to solve problems between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis was not possible while Israel was at war with the Palestinians in the occupied Gaza and the West Bank. They wondered about engaging in sports programs in the “abnormal society that constitutes the State of Israel” and about partnering with Israeli governmental authorities in these programs (Sugden, 2006).

Studies of such programs generally conclude that while such efforts do excellent work on the micro-level with individuals, they can’t solve or even impact large scale geo-political problems, and F4P exemplifies these findings (Galily & Leitner, 2013; Hoberman, 2011). What the organizers discovered is that it is difficult to “be for the Jews” in sports and social justice efforts in the current “abnormal” state of Israel. Corrosive and virulent anti-Semitism forces the Jews to “be for themselves” and make it necessary for others to “be for them.” In the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Jewish leaders are faced with the obligation not only to be for themselves and to hope for the support of others, but must also engage in the corollary of Hillel’s maxim, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

I Am Only for Myself, What Am I?

Unfortunately, it is quite possible that those who are oppressed can also, when they gain power, become oppressors. Such is the case for the Jews of the Jewish State. The hideous genocide enacted on European Jewry during the Holocaust, and the anti-Semitism that both preceded it and still continues on the continent of Europe as is demonstrated by football fans discussed above, makes Jews apprehensive of societies where they are not in power. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was a solution to Europe’s Jewish problem. For the Jewish refugees and survivors, the ability to settle in a Jewish state made their lives livable. But the idea that they were going to “a land without people” to solve the problem of being a “people without a land,” the myth that supports Jewish ownership of the land, was just not true.

Zionism, the social and political movement that started in Europe in the 1880s, pressed for a Jewish homeland and the migration of all Jews to that place. Initially the goal was to find a safe haven anywhere. With the Balfour Declaration in 1917 British Mandatory Palestine was settled on as the location where Jews had already begun to migrate. Until the establishment of the state, there were many varieties of Zionist philosophy. Many religious Jews rejected Zionism as a secular movement. Cultural Zionists looked forward to a renaissance of Jewish language, arts, and folk traditions but had no interest in statehood. Philosophers, like Martin Buber, recognized the existence of a Palestinian people and the imperative to work toward co-existence, based on the “I-Thou” philosophy and connected to his understanding of Hillel’s maxim.

But with the establishment of the state Zionism became identified exclusively as the national aspiration of the Jewish people. In order to make that a reality, Israel became a militarized society, at odds with hostile neighboring Arab states. In the process the plight of the Palestinians who lived on the land that became the state of Israel was discounted by both other Arabs and the Jews. For the Jews of Israel, 1948 was liberation. For the Palestinians it was the Naqba (Catastrophe). Some remained on the land, and today represent about 20% of Israel’s population, but most fled. Israel gained control over the lands they had predominantly inhabited (Gaza to the West and the West Bank to the East) in 1967 and those lands became Occupied Territories that Israel still controls in defiance of international law. The land without a people is now a land with two peoples at odds with one another. But while the Jews have a state and military control the Palestinians have a 50-year history of anger and frustration. They fight back primarily with individual acts of violence, but have also used sport for cultural adaptation, protest, and boycott in and against the Jewish state.

One thing both peoples share is a love of football. There have been efforts at cooperation, primarily pre-statehood, but the ugly side of sports competition as a site for enacting “us/them” confrontations has primarily prevailed. In 1929 the Eretz Israel Football Association in Mandatory Palestine was admitted to FIFA as the Palestinian Football Association. Because FIFA only included nations, the PFA was required to incorporate both Jewish and Arab teams. The Arab teams withdrew and founded the General Palestinian Sports Association in 1934. It was disbanded after riots in 1936. Arab teams rejoined the Jewish association in 1941. In 1943 they split again. Because the Jewish groups had official FIFA recognition, the Arab teams did not play in FIFA tournaments. When the state of Israel achieved independence, the official league was re-named the Israel Football Association, IFA (Sorek, 2007).

The IFA played in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) from 1954 until 1974 when they were expelled as a result of political pressures from many Arab members of the League who were openly hostile and refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israeli football remained unaffiliated until 1994 when they joined the European association, UEFA.

The teams in Israel are both geographically based and affiliated with various political groups. Maccabi teams were from the political center. Hapo’el teams have socialist roots, and Beitar represents the political right. With the growing commercial focus of football internationally and in Israel, those political designations became less meaningful and individual players became more valued commercially. For the most part, Israeli teams consist of mostly Palestinian or Jewish Israelis. Foreign nationals play for both and there are usually a few Jews on Palestinian Israeli teams, a few Palestinian Israelis on Jewish teams. Top rated Palestinian Israelis play on the Israel national team. Overall, Palestinians are over-represented in football leagues; they are 20% of the population but make up 42% of the football teams (Galily, 2007).

The story of the Palestinian Israeli football team from the town of Bnei Sakhnin illustrates the way football functions politically in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Sakhnin is the most successful of the Palestinian Israeli teams, and the only one to ever attain membership in the Israeli premier league. Unlike most Palestinian Israeli teams that are underfunded by impoverished local governments, Sakhnin has gained outside funding and success. It was a Palestinian Israeli player from Sakhnin, Abbas Suan, who in 2005 secured Israel’s first chance at qualifying for the World Cup with an equalizer against Ireland. Suan became a hero throughout Israel, even though he refused to sing the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, at the start of any match in which he played. The day Sakhnin became the first Palestinian club to win an Israeli championship they received congratulations from both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, even as a battle raged in the Gaza strip. To most observers this was a chance for a minority to be recognized and validated. By providing the setting, football was acknowledged as a site to build bridges across differences in this highly charged conflict, and for Palestinians to gain acceptance from Jewish Israelis. In order to achieve this status, however, Palestinian Israelis have focused on the achievements of individual players and stayed away from using football matches to validate or press for their national aspirations. And they still live in a world where Jewish and Arab fans sit in separate sections of the stadiums where they play. There is also a separate Islamic Soccer League for those Palestinian Israelis who reject any connections with Israel as a way of normalizing the current situation (Dorsey, 2016; Sorek, 2007).

Israel has used the integration of Palestinians into professional football to point out that they have built a society that is open to and supports minorities in their midst, and that they are a nation seeking peace. Football has become one element of the larger strategy to improve Israel’s image in the rest of the world. The facts that most of the matches played between Jewish and Palestinian Israeli teams go on without incident, and that there is little ethnic discord on teams that are mixed, support this point of view. The reaction of the Beitar Jerusalem team and their fans, however, belies this. To right-wing Beitar supporters the validation of Sakhnin or other Palestinian teams or players is an outrage. Israel is a Jewish state and those who are not Jewish should not be the ones representing Israel. Matches played between Beitar and Palestinian Israeli teams have been a battleground of the conflict over the years (Ben-Porat, 2001; Carmeli & Grossman, 2000; Sorek, 2007).

Beitar fans were well-known for their open hostility to Palestinian Israeli clubs, and their “ultras” are funded and supported by the club management. They are, like their anti-Semitic counterparts in Europe, openly racist and violent. They wanted their team to be “pure,” meaning Jews only. Although a few foreign Muslim players had played for Beitar previously, in 2013 when the club signed two Muslim players from Chechnya, the fans screamed “Death to the Arabs.” For 4 months they vandalized and rioted, chasing the two players back home. Many of Beitar’s more moderate fans began supporting other teams. Beitar Jerusalem today has only Jewish players. Although several Israeli Palestinian stars have dared Beitar Jerusalem to hire them, they have been rebuffed (Dorsey, 2016; Levy & Medina, 2016).

In protest, Palestinians have also created their own football teams in the Occupied Territories. In 1998 Palestine was officially recognized as a state by FIFA and admitted to the AFC. FIFA was among the first international organizations to recognize Palestine statehood. Because the Palestinian teams originate in the West Bank and Gaza, the government of Israel has power over their travel and has limited their opportunities to play in international competitions by denying them exit visas, including for a qualifying match for the Asian Cup in 2007 and then again for a World Cup qualifying match in 2010. Some of the leading players have been identified as terrorists and languish in Israeli prisons, have been detained at border crossings, and died in wars. Two of their stadiums have been demolished by the government. Because of these restrictions and problems, many players on the National Team come from the Palestinian diaspora (Dorsey, 2016; MacLean, 2014).

The Palestine Football Association has unsuccessfully used boycott and protest tactics to fight back by asking FIFA to remove the UEFA U21 tournament from Israel in 2013, but the UEFA denied the request, arguing that sports should not be politicized. In 2015 the PFA requested that FIFA ban Israel from participating in tournaments until they shut down six IFA teams in settlement towns on the West Bank because FIFA does not allow teams to play on territory of other nations without permission. In 2017 they withdrew the request before a vote could be taken on the matter. MacLean (2014) argues that sports boycotts are less successful today than they were at the time when they were used against South Africa because in this era of globalization international governing bodies are unlikely to respond. Palestinian satisfaction has come on the pitch; however, as now for the first time they have surpassed Israel (82 and 98, respectively) in the FIFA 2017 global rankings.

Despite claims to the contrary made by sports organizations, governments, fans or team owners, sport that takes place on a public stage cannot fail to be political. As we have seen in the case of Judaism, sport can be a forum to fight against anti-Semitism through cultural adaptation, protest, and boycott. If Jews have learned any lesson from the experience of oppression it ought to be to use that lesson as a model for fighting against other forms of ethnic and religious oppression. While some efforts have been made in that direction, it is, unfortunately, yet to be the case for the current conflict in Israel and Palestine.

Yet there is an excellent example of how Jews promoted social justice for others in the context of sports in the story of Hank Greenberg, the Jewish American baseball star. When Greenberg returned from serving in World War II he led Detroit to two successful seasons but then was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Greenberg was playing first base on May 17, 1947 when the Pirates were facing the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, the first black player in organized baseball, would play in Pittsburgh for the first time that day. Robinson had been dealing with race hatred in every city in which he played, from fans and players on opposing teams. During this game Robinson got a hit and he and Greenberg collided at first base and had a brief conversation; in Buber’s terminology, “a meeting.” The next day an article appeared in the New York Times with the headline “Hank Greenberg a Hero to Dodgers’ Negro Star” (Alpert, 2008).

In Robinson’s 1948 autobiography, he called Greenberg’s words to him at that moment “the first real words of encouragement I received from a player on an opposing team.” He believed Greenberg was “sincere because I heard he had experienced some racial trouble when he came up. I felt sure that he understood my problems” (Robinson & Smith, 1948, p. 147).

Greenberg also used the story to draw connections between racism and anti-Semitism in his autobiography:

Jackie had it tough, tougher than any ballplayer who ever lived. I happened to be a Jew, one of the few in baseball, but I was white and I didn’t have horns like some thought I did … But I identified with Jackie Robinson. (Greenberg & Berkow, 1989, p. 191)

Not Now, When?

This dual role of the Jew, as one who identified with the oppression of blacks based on his own experience and who saw an opportunity to counter this oppression based on his own more powerful situation, is a model for Jews today to fulfill the mandate of both being for the Jewish people and at the same time for others. Given the intractable nature of the conflict in Israel/Palestine, the precarious situation of Jews in Europe, and the cultural adaptations in the United States, that would be the best we can hope for.