How Soccer on Rosh Hashanah Threatens Our Survival
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
September 23, 2004
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, Tel Aviv Maccabee played Bayern Munich in a UEFA Champions League match in front of 21,000 fans at Ramat Gan’s National Stadium. The next day Maccabee Haifa played a Russian squad at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium. Though both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom made personal appeals to the UEFA to reschedule the matches, their appeals fell on deaf ears. Israelis will have to choose between the synagogue and soccer, jeered the UEFA spokesman.
Neither Israeli club considered refusing to play on Rosh Hashanah, and the matches aroused little public outcry in Israel. The management of Haifa Maccabee made clear from the beginning that it viewed playing on Rosh Hashanah as "not even an issue for us." And the UEFA’s obstinate refusal to advance by one day the match between Tel Aviv Maccabee and Bayern Munich stemmed from the correct assumption that the Israeli side would play no matter what.
When the Glasgow Rangers refused to board the plane for a UEFA Cup match near the Chechnyan boarder in 2001, out of security concerns, the UEFA quickly rescheduled the game at a neutral venue. In the absence of any such credible threat from Tel Aviv Maccabee, the UEFA refused to budge.
How much should all this concern religious Jews? From a purely halachic perspective, for instance, soccer matches on Rosh Hashanah are no more problematic than the dozens that take place every Shabbos.
Yet from another perspective, it can be argued that the lack of Jewish pride reflected in the easy capitulation to UEFA dictates, and loss among secular Israelis of any sense of connection to their Jewish past represent a threat to the very physical survival of the Jewish people in Israel.
For nearly a hundred years, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael have engaged in a struggle for physical survival with their Arab neighbors. Sometimes the fighting has been more intense; other times less so. But it has never ended completely nor is their any prospect of it doing so in the foreseeable future, particularly after another generation of Palestinian children have been raised to believe that their greatest purpose in life is to kill as many Jews as possible.
Recognition that there is no end in sight has given rise to dark thoughts on the part of many Israelis, particularly in the wake of the messianic expectations aroused by the Oslo process. In a poll taken shortly after the outbreak of the current four-year war, 70% of Israelis expressed doubts about the very future of Israel. A Maariv cartoon perfectly captured the national mood. Next to a tombstone marked Yosef’s Tomb were a series of other dug graves marked Tomb of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, Temple Mount, and finally the State of Israel. Just recently, 35% of secular teenagers expressed their ambition to live elsewhere, and over half of teenagers said that they do not feel part of Israel or her problems.
It was not always thus. From an objective standpoint, the situation of the Jews of Israel was far more perilous in 1948 on the eve of declaration of independence, when five Arab armies stood poised to attack the fledgling state. Yet the declaration of independence was greeted with exuberant dancing and optimism about the future, even though 1% of the population would lose their lives in the war to come. Today Israel’s military and economic power dwarfs that of its Arab neighbors, yet the doubts about the future are far greater than they were.
What changed? The answer is Israelis’ sense of themselves. The founding generation had no doubt they were engaged in a world historical task – nothing less than the rebirth of the Jewish people. Though most of them were not religious – indeed many were in ardent rebellion against Torah Judaism -- they were acutely aware of themselves in the continuum of Jewish history. The first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion took pains to load up the new state with Jewish symbols and to locate it in the sweep of Jewish history. Thus he created the Chief Rabbinate and granted it a monopoly over personal status issues. Talmud and Tanach were part of the basic school curriculum. Israeli youth hiked around the country, and knew every hill and brook of it.
All this seems like a distant memory today. Israeli youth know little of Tanach, nothing of Talmud. Beyond the local shopping mall and nearest beach, Eretz Yisrael holds little interest for them. Fifty per cent of high school age kids living outside of Jerusalem have never visited the city, much less the Kotel.
The willingness, even eagerness, of many Israelis, to transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians; the Supreme Court’s striking down of local ordinances limiting the sale of pork; and now soccer games on Rosh Hashanah are all part of the same picture. Even the Jewish pride that once caused American Jews to swell when baseball slugger Hank Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur, and a generation later when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch, is foreign to Israeli Jews today. Participation in the UEFA Champions League is more important than Rosh Hashanah.
The loss of Jewish identity is not merely depressing from the point of view of religious Jews. It threatens the very survival of Israel, for it is directly linked to the loss of national will and confidence. Simply put, without a sense of national purpose, the price to be paid for remaining in Israel does not seem to be worth it. That is why the percentage of religious youth, for instance, who see their future elsewhere is only a third of that of secular youth.
The whole history of the Jewish people attests to the critical role of national will. For more than two millennia the Jews have stood as the symbol of mesiras nefesh to the world. Our willingness to sacrifice our lives rather than betray our relationship with Hashem struck outsiders as a form of madness. Yet without that stiff-necked stubbornness we would not have survived as a people while all our oppressors disappeared from the face of the earth.
That same sense of purpose is necessary today, and in precious short supply. As Daniel Pipes wrote nearly five years ago, "Israel today has weapons and money, the Arabs have will. . . . Israel has high capabilities and low morale; the Arabs have low capabilities and high morale. Again and again, the record of history shows victory goes not to the side with the greater fire power, but to the side with greater determination."
Successive Israeli Prime Ministers have been driven not by their strategic analysis but by the fear that if they did not cut some kind of deal with the Palestinians all those Israelis with the ability to flee elsewhere will do so. As Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak was horrified when first shown the Oslo Accords, which were negotiated without any input from the army. Yet at Camp David, he offered Arafat far more. In a series of speeches comparing unfavorably the national spirit on the eve of Camp David to that of 1973, Barak made clear what was driving him. And today, the primary justification offered by Prime Minister Sharon, the great champion of the settler movement, for the withdrawal from Gaza, is the necessity of providing hope to a depressed and battered people. The eagerness of the Israeli public to grasp at any nostrum offering a way out of the hundred-year impasse with the Arabs is one reflection of the loss of Israeli optimism about the future.
The Arabs, unfortunately, have understood far more clearly than we the connection between a national past and a national future. Sallah Tamari, a Palestinian legislator, experienced a major transformation in his thinking while serving in an Israeli jail. One night he noticed his Jewish jailer eating bread on Pesach. When he asked him how he could do such a thing, the jailer replied, "I feel no obligation to events that took place over 3,000 years ago."
Until then, Tamari had viewed Israel as too powerful for the Palestinians to realize any of their territorial dreams. But that night he could not sleep. As he tossed and turned, he thought to himself, "A nation whose members have no connection to their past, and are capable of so openly transgressing their most important laws – that nation has cut off all its roots to the Land." From then on, he determined to fight for everything "because opposing us is a nation that has no connection to its roots."
Yasir Arafat was acting on the same insight at Camp David when he insisted on full Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount. His goal was to force secular Israelis to abase themselves by conceding that the Temple Mount, mentioned nowhere in the Koran, is more important to the Palestinians than it is to Jews, whose sacred books mention Jerusalem and Zion hundreds of times. By doing so, he hoped to sever another one of the fraying chords binding the Jews of Israel to their past.
Soccer on Rosh Hashanah is one more cut in the ties that bind us to our past and thus offer us hope for our future.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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