A few years ago, when the controversy over Native American nicknames for
sports teams was first boiling over, a rather politically incorrect thought popped
into my head.
Whether silly or just stupid, most of the names all seemed to denote a symbol
of strength, or at least, of ferocity. So when some wondered aloud how Jews
would feel if teams were named the "rabbis," for instance, or the "Jews," I
had a different reaction.
It occurred to me that if, in the Western imagination, the word "Jew" had
conjured up images of ferocity and fearlessness in battle the way Indian names
always did, then maybe the history of at least the first half of the 20th
century would have been less unpleasant for the Jewish people. I still think that's
an interesting possibility, but it appears that a Dutch soccer team is
answering my supposition in a way I didn't quite anticipate.
SOME SOCCER JEWS
According to a March 28 story reported by The New York Times, supporters of
Amsterdam's Ajax soccer team call themselves "Jews," wave Israeli flags at
games, and flaunt Star of David tattoos to prove their allegiance to their team.
The origins of the identification of the team with Jews is somewhat hazy. But
fans of other teams have always referred to Ajax as "the Jewish team," and
Ajax's non-Jewish rooters have, apparently in defiance, taken the term as a
badge of honor.
Lest you think this is merely a harmless manifestation of a sports
subculture, it appears that Ajax's opponents are prepared to take the "Jews" at their
word. Rooters for clubs from Rotterdam or the Hague have been known to chant
"Hamas" at matches with Ajax. Even worse, they chant "Jews to the gas" or, as
Times' correspondent Craig S. Smith ominously noted, simply hiss "to simulate
the sound of gas escaping."
The team is trying to get its fans to drop the Jewish stuff to avoid these
disgusting scenes, but both Ajax partisans and their rivals seem unlikely to
drop either the Magen Davids or the anti-Semitic jeers.
All of which just exemplifies that European anti-Semitism is so virulent and
adaptable a virus that it can find a haven even in the playing of games, where
virtually no Jews compete.
Spectator sports are supposed to be havens from the travails of the real
world. That's why so many of us, male and female, rely on them so heavily.
For example, what else would unite a people as divided as the population of
Israel (the real "Jews") as sports? Indeed, it is arguable that most Israelis
are at least as obsessed with the possibility that their national soccer team
will be able to win a coveted birth in next year's World Cup as they are about
Knesset votes on disengagement from Gaza. After ties against favored France
and Ireland this past week they might be on their way to a minor miracle.
To get into the World Cup tournament, the Israelis have to fight an uphill
battle by playing against the more established European teams instead of their
Middle Eastern neighbors. That's because Arab countries still won't play
Israel, a prejudicial practice that has been accepted by soccer's international
Closer to home, for those who feel that the long winter is merely a prelude
to a spring that brings us a new baseball season, even that sacred preserve of
Americana is very much under attack. Some players may well have taken illegal
steroids calling into question the legitimacy of their statistical
Some have compared the use of steroids to the infamous "Black Sox" scandal,
in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series.
That dismal chapter of history is unfortunately associated in some minds with
Jews because of the accusation that New York gangster Arnold Rothstein was
behind the fix.
Let us be grateful for small favors. After digesting the vile goings-on at
Ajax soccer games and the obstacles placed in the path of the Israeli soccer
team, it is at least some relief to note that no one appears to be blaming the
use of steroids on the Jews.
Rothstein notwithstanding, the longstanding Jewish love affair with baseball
was honored last summer when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in
Cooperstown, N.Y., noted the achievements of Jews at a ceremony that
highlighted the publication last year of a set of baseball cards of all Jewish players
in history of the Major Leagues (it is still available for a contribution to
the American Jewish Historical Society at: www. ajhs.org).
While the number of Jewish players has indeed been small (142 Jews were
honored with cards in the set), as set creator Martin Abramowitz has pointed out,
the collective batting average of Jewish hitters is three points higher than
that of all Major League players, and the collective earned run average of
Jewish pitchers is .11 lower than that of all hurlers.
All of which proves nothing about Jewish life or baseball, but it does
testify to the fact that we need not rely on fake identifications with teams, such
as those in Holland, to participate in our national pastime.
Some scribes, not to mention grandstanding members of Congress, would like us
to focus entirely on steroid use, which is illegal and perhaps even immoral,
but it hasn't yet been established with certainty exactly how its use has
affected the game.
You'll have to forgive me, but I would rather discuss whether former All-Star
and top current Jewish player Shawn Green's gradual decline will be reversed
by his trade from the Los Angles Dodgers to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Or will the departure of Gabe Kapler for Japan mean that the mazel he brought
to the Boston Red Sox last year as a reserve on a World Champion team go with
him? Along with other fans of the New York Yankees, Jew and non-Jew alike, I
certainly hope so.
Either way, the return of baseball is a welcome break from the endless news
cycle. This weekend, some of us will pause from our nonstop worrying about the
world and instead begin to concentrate on runs, hits and errors. So let's rise
for the national anthem, place our Hebrew baseball caps over our hearts, and
silently give thanks to the G-d of Israel that it's time to play ball again!