The Jerusalem Post
Kicking around the idea of home
It was a blast from the past. I’m old enough to remember England when it was considered a football superpower – that’s football with a round ball, not the American national sport. Growing up in London in the 1960s and ’70s, it was something that was a given – like the Beatles, the Royal Family, the power of a cup of tea (with milk) and rainy weather. I, too, heard the stories of how even in World War I, British and German soldiers played football with each other in no-man’s-land during the Christmas truce.
England was way past its best football-wise by the time I left to start my life in Israel – 42 years ago next week – but the memories (and hopes) live on. I wasn’t ever particularly interested in the game, but nonetheless it was always there in the background. Ironically, given this week’s UEFA European Football Championship final between England and Italy, the full force of England’s reputation only came home to me during a school ski trip to the Italian Alps in the ’70s.
A keen amateur swimmer, my record with sports on solid ground was shaky at best. Suffice to say, the skiing part of the trip ended dramatically for me on Day II with an ambulance ride around mountain bends to a local hospital. The medical team wasn’t interested in hearing of previous fractures or allergies. What they really wanted to know was if I had ever met George Best, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton or any other living kicking legend. Their disappointment was almost palpable until I mentioned that I lived near Wembley Stadium, the very place where England beat (West) Germany to win the World Cup in 1966.
These memories came flooding back this week as England played Italy (and lost) at Wembley in the UEFA final. I was somehow swept up in the game and atmosphere. The small British-born community in Israel – even those of us here for decades – couldn’t help but root for England. Friends gathered around TV sets at home, beers and salt and vinegar crisps on hand along with Israeli sunflower seeds and cubes of watermelon. Others cheered (and cursed) at public outdoor screenings in parks, Jerusalem’s First Station compound, hotels, restaurants and bars.
Beyond the sporting and entertainment value, there was a feeling that the games this
year were about beating coronavirus.
I have long believed that the idea of world peace is beautiful but naive. Any major international sporting event shows how we naturally divide into communities and countries. National pride should not be equated with nationalism. It’s natural and part of what makes the world go round.
The average soccer match is reminder that tribal warfare will always exist in the games people play. The European championship just completed was not about a united Europe, particularly mid-pandemic, post-Brexit; it was about national teams. It’s not all fun and games.
With the European football cup out of the way, the eyes of the global village are turning to Tokyo where the Olympics are due to start on July 23. The lack of live spectators due to the corona restrictions must be disappointing for the competitors, but there is no doubt that millions around the world will be keenly following the events.
I have written several times in the past of how the Olympics were directly responsible for setting me on the path that brought me
from a suburb of the British capital to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Sadly it wasn’t the sporting element at play but the way the Games were hijacked by the Palestinians.
In 1972 American Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals – and my preteen heart. He was one of the reasons I was watching the Games so closely when terror struck. The other reason was that a member of my own swimming club was competing. When members of the Palestinian Black September movement broke into the Israeli team’s apartment in Munich, I could not understand what was going on. From being a sporting event where the spirit of universal values should triumph, the Olympics became a serious news story. It was a public spectacle with Israeli hostages in the Olympic Village and a captive audience around the world. Terror became a media event and changed security needs everywhere forever.
Was my English teammate safe? Yes, only the Israelis were being held captive, my mother explained. And then she added the sentence that literally changed my life. “And Mark Spitz has been taken away to safety too.” It was the first time I really understood the connection that being Jewish could put a person in danger and the first time I truly understood the link between Israel and the Jews. Israel was no longer a theoretical place in my prayer book and Bible. Our fates were intertwined. The sight of the bodies of the 11 slain Israeli athletes being sent home in flagwrapped coffins – while the world chose to take “The games must go on” approach – was the springboard for my aliyah to Israel when I finished high school in 1979.
It’s also why the footage of British former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2014 paying homage at the graves of some of the Olympic atrocity masterminds was so jarring.
This week an announcement headed “Demonstrate for Palestine” caught my attention. Several groups with names like Deir Yassin Remembered; American Muslims for Palestinians NJ; Existence is Resistance; Within our Lifetime and Palestinian Youth Movement signed on the call to bring Palestinian flags and signs to Palisades Credit Union Park in New York.
“The ‘Israeli’ Olympic baseball team is playing the Rockland Boulders,” read the announcement. “Let’s show them that sports teams representing APARTHEID ‘Israel’ are NOT welcome!”
Note the quote marks around the word “Israel” – as if the country doesn’t actually exist. Imagine putting quote marks around “India,” for example. Then there is the “apartheid” accusation – now standard fare – in upper case letters, in case you’re in danger of missing it.
But it’s Iran that openly flouts the Olympic spirit and requires its representatives to suffer a proverbial diplomatic headache whenever they have to compete against Israelis. The Iranian regime does not want to risk losing to “the Zionist entity” and prefers to be bad sports and bad losers than actually take part in an event where the blue-and-white flag might be raised above the winner’s podium.
And what exactly is this rally teaching Palestinian youth? Foul play or good sports? The 11 slain Israeli athletes should serve as a reminder of what happens when the Palestinians mix hatred of Israel with a sporting event.
(The Israeli team won, 7-1 in a five-inning contest, in case you were wondering, but this was one of those occasions when it really was more about participating. And, touchingly, there was also a short memorial service in tribute of The Eleven, as they are known.)
When England lost to Germany in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Semifinal, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly responded to a comment “Isn’t it terrible about losing to the Germans at our national sport?” with the pithy: “They might have beaten us at our national sport, but we managed to beat them at their national sport twice in the 20th century.”
In this spirit, I’m sorry that the English singing “It’s coming home” faded with the realization that it’s “going to Rome” instead. But I’ll be celebrating my own homecoming to Israel next week. My aliyah anniversary falls the day after Tisha Be’av, a day of mourning commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Israel is not an implanted western colony, as the pro-Palestinian protesters and terrorists would have the world believe. On the contrary, our roots here as Jews go back millennia, exile and return, exile and return.
I consider my decision to move to Israel a personal victory in the war against terrorism. And the fact that I live in a vibrant, thriving Jerusalem is a historic victory over Rome. You can’t beat that feeling.