Talk about a feel-good story.
Israel’s entry in the World Baseball Classic, which began March 6 and ends March 22, quickly became the premier global tournament’s Cinderella story, defying heavy odds by winning its first four games with a ragtag gang of has-beens and up-and-comers that has not one current Major Leaguer.
As we went to press, Team Israel was still in the competition, one victory away from making it to the semi-finals in Los Angeles. Not bad for the last to qualify among the 16 teams and the only one not listed in the Top 20 of world rankings.
Players like first baseman Ike Davis, who has had his moments with both the Yankees and the Mets, and Jason Marquis, a native New Yorker who pitched for nine teams in his 15 years in the majors, are among the better-known players on the 28-man squad that includes Class A and AA minor leaguers. Only one native Israeli is on the team. That’s pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, who lives in Brooklyn and is vice president of programming at City Winery in Manhattan.
Most of the players wearing the blue-and-white are Americans who qualified for the Israeli team by meeting the tournament’s “heritage rules” allowing any player eligible for citizenship in a country to represent it in the competition. That coincided with the Jewish State’s Law of Return, as amended in 1970, which provides citizenship to individuals by virtue of their being Jewish, or having at least one Jewish grandparent or by being married to a Jew.
Aside from providing much-needed relief from the critical and worrying news of the day, Team Israel and its success offer up a vital message that transcends the confines of a baseball diamond. In part it’s about the value of maintaining a positive international image. For more than a week the team has been the darling of the sports world, the clear underdog in the tournament celebrated for its on-the-field exploits as well as its Mensch on a Bench mascot (a five-foot doll modeled after the popular Elf on the Shelf). Representing a society that has little knowledge of or interest in baseball — Israelis prefer football (soccer) and basketball — the team has been compared to the World Champion Chicago Cubs, though it has been noted Cub fans “only” had to wait 108 years for a world-class team while Jews have been waiting thousands of years.
The good vibes coming Israel’s way are especially important at a time when Jerusalem has taken steps that appear to narrow its democratic landscape, most notably in passing a law last week banning entry to foreigners who publicly support boycotts of the state or its settlements.
The legislation has been at the center of heated debate, here as well as in Israel. The Zionist Organization of America supports the bill, describing it as a protective measure and asserting that Israel has every right to decide who can and who can’t be admitted for entry. While agreeing that Israel is entitled to make such decisions, a number of American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, criticized the law as an international public relations disaster and a missed opportunity for allowing critics of Israel to see its dynamism and complexity first-hand.
Further, the legislation, following Knesset approval to use privately owned Palestinian land for Jewish settlements, adds to the notion that Israel is hunkering down and turning inward, less and less concerned about how it is perceived beyond its borders. As the victim of outrageous United Nations bias, surrounded by hostile neighbors engaged in violent struggles, Israelis, understandably, are looking out for their own. But they are closing themselves off, physically and politically. The security barrier and Iron Dome add to that sense of isolation, as does the new law to keep out leading supporters of BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the Jewish state.
There’s a heavy price to pay for this outlook. The global wave of nationalism, including the Brexit push in Britain and the Trump administration’s “America First” limits to immigration, is contrary to the openness and optimism of democracies like the U.S. and Israel. Both countries have flourished as societies of immigrants, taking pride in the tapestry of cultures that make up their citizenry. The Statue of Liberty, with her torch of freedom, represents more than a symbolic welcome to newcomers. And the state of Israel’s history and raison d’etre are about being a safe harbor for Jews anywhere facing persecution, taking in millions from Arab lands, the Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
The fact that Jews from so many strands of our heritage make up Team Israel says far more about the miracle of modern-day Zionism than about fielding a baseball squad. How sad if the impulse to ward off rather than welcome the newcomer weakens the ties that bind us as a people.