Israel Matters! – November 2022

Know Your Israeli Sports Teams!

Sports are a very big deal in Israel, and Israeli sports fans are very passionate supporters of their favorite clubs. The top sport in Israel without question is soccer (or kadoor regel in Hebrew, which literally is foot ball), but basketball (kadoor sal in Hebrew, literally basket ball) is a close second. Both soccer and basketball are played professionally in Israeli leagues which themselves follow the familiar European model of organized competition with a top flight league followed by secondary leagues with promotion and relegation taking place at the end of each season to keep the competition tight. There are also volleyball, handball, and even baseball, hockey, and American football leagues, though these are not close to the scale or skill level of the soccer and basketball competitions.

One thing that does look different about Israeli sports clubs compared to their American counterparts is the team naming convention. Unlike American teams that feature an entire menagerie of animal names (Lions and Tigers, and Bears, oh my!) let alone fashion peculiarities (Red Sox or White) and regional identifiers (Yankees) including some that no longer reflect current team location but stuck for historical reasons (Dodgers), with very rare exceptions Israeli teams tend to have only one or two different names across all of the team sports. Why is this the case?

The answer rests with the history of the Israeli state. Before the founding of modern Israel in 1948, there were two main trends in secular Zionism that organized non-religious life in the Yishuv (settlement), as the Jewish community in Palestine was known. These two camps were the Labor Zionists who came to Israel with socialist ideology and were responsible for establishing the kibbutz (agricultural collective) movement among other things, and the General Zionists who believed in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine but were not avowedly socialist in their outlook. When it comes to sports, the General Zionists have the first mover advantage. The Maccabi World Union dates back to 1895 when it was founded not in Israel, but in Constantinople, Turkey (present day Istanbul) essentially as a refuge for Jewish athletes such as gymnasts who were barred from participating in other European clubs. The Israeli Maccabi sports organization was not established until 1912 in Tel Aviv, though individual Israeli sports clubs bearing the name Maccabi had existed since 1906. Fast forward to the present day and you will see a plethora of Israeli soccer, basketball, handball, and any other team sport with the name Maccabi prefixed before whatever city or region of Israel is represented. In soccer for example, Maccabi Haifa (the “greens”) has been one of Israel’s most successful teams (and is presently in first place in Israel’s Premier League at the time of writing). Of course, there are many other Maccabi teams in the league, including Maccabi Tel Aviv (3rd place), Maccabi Netanya (10th place), and Maccabi Bnei Raina (11th place). Maccabi is also a big name in Israeli basketball where Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been recognized as not only the top team in Israel, but also in Europe where it has won the Euroleague championship (a competition involving the best teams in Europe) six times! Even more impressive for us at Israel Matters is that the all-time greatest TBS hoopster ever, Doron Ben-Atar, also played for Maccabi Tel Aviv (he wore jersey #4).

So now you understand why so many Israeli teams are called Maccabi, but what happened to those Labor Zionists? Well, the Jewish Labor Union (you know, the Histadrut) founded Hapoel (literally the worker) in 1926. And of course, Hapoel-affiliated teams representing workers proliferated in Israel, while internationally Hapoel joined the International Labor Sports Confederation. Arise ye Prisoners of Salvation, Arise ye Wretched of the Earth, and put the ball in the net whether soccer or hoops! Tied with Maccabi Haifa in 1st place in the soccer Premier League is Hapoel Yerushalayim, while Hapoel Beer-Sheva, Hapoel Haifa, Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, Hapoel Hadera, and yes even Hapoel Tel Aviv are also in action. And the same holds for basketball, handball, and all other Israeli team sports: where there’s a Maccabi, there’s probably also a Hapoel team close by.
But you have to admit it would be kind of boring if every single Israeli sports team was a Maccabi or a Hapoel. Though this makes for exciting local derby days (Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Hapoel Tel Aviv! Maccabi Haifa vs Hapoel Haifa!), surely there’s more.

And there is. One of Israel’s most decorated – and controversial – soccer teams reaches back to the militant revisionist Zionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923 in Riga, Latvia. In Israel, the hero of this movement was Joseph Trumpeldor, who was killed defending the Jewish settlement of Tel Hai in 1920. Adopting the Hebrew acronym for Brit Trumpeldor (covenant or alliance of Trumpeldor), which nicely also matches the name of the last Jewish fort to fall during the Bar Kochba revolt, resulted in the name Beitar. And from the Beitar political movement came Beitar Yerushalayim, a soccer team with a truly fanatical base of supporters. Once this club lived at the top of the table, but while still in Israel’s Premier League, Beitar is languishing in last place.
So now that you know your Maccabi’s from your Hapoel’s with Beitar thrown into the mix, next time you are in Israel, catch a game – it’s a ton of fun!

Ma Yesh b’Telivisia? What’s on TV?

There are many Israeli television series available in the USA that are not only interesting and entertaining; they give the viewer a glimpse of many aspects of Israel and Israeli culture and history. This month, we review a show that recently won four awards at the Israeli-version of the Academy Awards, including Best Daily Drama. Don’t miss The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Unlike the “Beauty and the Baker” reviewed in October’s Israel Matters, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is not a show to watch when you need something light after a hard day. Nonetheless, don’t miss this series – this show is captivating and will give you lots to think about.
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem (Netflix)

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a moderately-historically accurate show set in Jerusalem during the end of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and Israel’s War of Independence. The show jumps around between the years of 1917-1949, which sounds more confusing than it actually is. These time-jumps indeed help the viewer understand what caused characters’ behaviors and specific situations to exist as they do many years later.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem centers around the lives and experiences of the Ermoza family, a prominent, Sephardic, somewhat secular Jewish family. As you get to know the Ermozas, you see the unique culture, traditions and customs of Sephardic Jews in action. You will also note their prejudices (even hatred) of the Ashkenazi Jews, and the influence of mysticism and family structure (and roles) on day-to-day life.

The majority of the show takes place during the period of British rule. One Israeli historian (Hillel Cohen) argues that this was the “genesis of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” In The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, you see the interactions change over time between Arabs and Jews, from positively living and working together to violently distrusting each other. Long-held Arab resentment and fear of displacement eventually erupt into a bloody revolt that is emotionally and ethically difficult to watch, yet historically important. The show also gives you a deep look into the Haganah –Israel’s fledgling underground militia (and later army). The Haganah’s goal was to protect Jews and their property from the spreading violence, but the group had a dark side as well.

So, what’s with the title of this show? There is actually a “beauty queen” in this show – the eldest Ermoza daughter Luna, who truly does use her very good looks to get her way. But the show isn’t really about Luna and her beauty. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem gives you a glimpse into the challenges, uncertainty and dangers faced by Jews who lived in those times and how Jewish families were forced to deal with them. You’ll also see the characters deal with issues of privilege or lack thereof, the differing perceptions of right and wrong, “Jewish guilt” and more. As you experience with the Ermozas the Jewish traditions, extended family struggles, personal challenges and of course, complexities and definitions of love, you’ll find yourself wondering how you would have managed in those times and contemplating how we have (and have not) evolved as a Jewish and global society many decades later. Your faithful nowhere-acclaimed Israel Matters television critics think this is a show not-to-be-missed.