With a 9-7 loss to Spain, Israel’s national team was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic Sunday in a round-robin tournament under arcane rules only a talmudic scholar could unravel. Still, the team’s 2-1 record brought joy to the fans who came out for their games in Jupiter, Fla., scarfing down shwarma and cheering on the Israeli side.
This being Israel, however, the team couldn’t escape scrutiny from the sort of people who make Israel-watching — and -bashing — their obsession. A long New York Times article on who qualified to play for Israel under the WBC’s “elastic” rules was probably meant to satisfy the appetite of the paper’s huge Jewish readership, but ended up as fodder for those who think everything Israel does is suspect. The predictable anti-Israel blogs suggested that Israel somehow gamed the system in filling their roster with talented American-Jewish minor leaguers and — had they advanced to future rounds — some choice Major Leaguers.
In fact, Israel’s rules for eligibility were roughly akin to the Law of Return that allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to claim Israeli citizenship. As a result the eligibility rules reflected a debate — and a principle — as old as Zionism itself. As Israeli journalist Elli Wohlgelernter explained in The Jerusalem Post, Israel was merely stating what figures like Mahmoud Abbas refuse to acknowledge: that Israel is a Jewish state — both a state of its citizens, Arab and Jew, and a homeland of the Jewish people, wherever they live. In recruiting Jewish-American players, Israel was making a statement that they are “automatically part of the family of Jews.” The players, meanwhile, were free to accept or reject this expansive definition of Jewish peoplehood.
Certainly, it felt like a family outing in Florida. For those who tuned in on the webcasts (or the live-blogging by NJJN’s own Ron Kaplan) it was a chance to bridge Israel and the Diaspora in an uplifting and, dare we say it, all-American way. Let the critics cry foul. Even in falling short, the Israeli team hit a home run — emphasis on home.