Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Why Israel’s Sudden Baseball Prowess Actually Means Something

No, there are no Sabras on the team. In fact, most Israelis are unaware they even have a national baseball team. Or how the game is played. Unlike American football, which attracts a small but growing fan base, baseball is for Israelis what cricket is for Americans: not a thing.

Yet suddenly, the Star of David has swept through Seoul and is on the march to Tokyo. Team Israel, a 200-1 underdog to win the World Baseball Classic, has defeated three top-10 teams — South Korea, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), and the Netherlands — the last of which boasts current stars like the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts and the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius.

So maybe Team Israel is not so Israeli, but it’s certainly a Jewish team, and it’s a real underdog. Under the leadership of manager Jerry Weinstein, these Jews — as Jews — have come together, offering a magical balance of power, speed, pitching, defense, strategy and chutzpah to somehow finish the first round undefeated.

For the players, it’s clear that being on Israel’s team isn’t just a way to get into the series. It means something. Former New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis, visiting Israel last summer, said that playing on the team is “representing your past, your heritage, your history. What’s in your blood.” Former Houston Astros pitcher Josh Zeid calls these players “the luckiest group of guys in professional sports. We are very proud of who we are and where we came from. I’ve worn a Jewish star for the last 8 or 9 years, I’m very proud of who I am.”

So is this “Team Israel” just a gimmick? Should we care? Minimally, it’s a load of fun for lifelong fans of baseball and Israel to see the two successfully combine. From the perspective of a sport trying to internationalize, Israel’s success is likely to bring with it a significant investment in bringing baseball to a country preoccupied with soccer and basketball.

Yet on a deeper level, Team Israel is very much the story of Israel itself. It is about Jews — forever the odd man out on every team — reorganizing themselves under a collective flag and anthem, believing in their collective worth, competing on a world stage, finding their own excellence and defeating odds. Looking at their Jewish identity with unalloyed pride.

And that’s an incredible story.

Sure, it’s only sports. But sports are a spiritual placeholder, a metaphor that touches on very real moments of the human soul. And among all the sports, baseball offers a unique balance of individual and collective achievement, and of raw athleticism, technical mastery, and careful calculus, that few other sports can claim.

Metaphors are important. As a real country, Israel is complicated, messy—but no more so than every other country on earth. The bigger Israeli story, however, is one of overcoming, of impossible achievement, of facing down war and adversity and economic hardship and hate, as well as affirming life, not just surviving but prospering. It’s a story we should never forget. A story no less fundamental to Jewish identity, and even more faithful to Jewish history, than that other often-reinforced narrative, that of Auschwitz.

Critics may argue that Jews shouldn’t separate out, shouldn’t make their own team, should always strive just to fit in. A Jewish ballclub, others reason, opens the door to hatred of Jews. This claim, however, is the same as that made against the early Zionists centuries ago, and it never seems to go away. And the results are pretty well known.

For some Israelis and American Jews, the story of Israel has lost some of its luster lately. We are caught in an endless series of harsh and confusing moments. But every once in a while, we are reminded of just how astonishing the last century has been. Baseball gives us a break from the bomb scares and boycotts and Bibi. An opportunity to reflect on a greater narrative of ourselves.

And to realize, as these ballplayers stand in honor as Israel’s national anthem is played, that whatever its successes and failures, Israel is still our country. Our team.

David Hazony is the editor of and the managing director of The Israel Project. Follow him on Twitter, @davidhazony

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.