Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Israelis Rejoice - Tel-Aviv's Maccabi Electra Wins European Basketball Championship

Maccabi Tel-Aviv Wins European Basketball Championship
The big news in Israel this week is unquestionably basketball.  Tel-Aviv's Maccabi Electra won the European Basketball Championship for the sixth time in its history on Sunday night, May 18, 2014, defeating Real Madrid in overtime 98-86.  Maccabi has played in the European Championship 15 times since 1958 and has been the dominant team in Israeli basketball for much of its history.

For a small country like Israel, this type of sports accomplishment is simply huge.  By some estimates, close to 10,000 Israelis travelled to Milan, Italy to attend the game.  Haaretz reports that approximately one third of Israelis actually watched the game, including my family members, as well as Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres.  (Not in the same location...)

Jubilant Israeli fans celebrated at Rabin square in Tel-Aviv and reporters crowded the Tel-Aviv airport awaiting the return home of the victorious team.  The Maccabi basketball team, like many of the European basketball clubs, features several American players.  Maccabi has seven American players on its roster who played at U.S. colleges including Tyrese Rice, Ricky Hickman and Devin Smith, all of whom featured prominently in the Maccabi win.  There are also a number of Israeli born players on the roster, including Ben Altit, Yogev Ohayun and Guy Pnini.

Basketball is quite popular in Israel, though probably second fiddle to soccer (football).  Nevertheless, a testament to the success of Israeli basketball is the fact that two Israeli basketball players currently play in the NBA.  The first Israeli to make the NBA, Omri Casspi, plays on the Houston Rockets.  He spent a few years of his early career in a starring role on Maccabi Tel-Aviv.  The other Israeli NBA player is Gal Mekel, who currently plays for the Dallas Mavericks.

Many Toronto basketball fans are well aware of the Maccabi basketball team.  Retired NBA star Anthony Parker played several seasons for Maccabi Tel-Aviv before joining the Toronto Raptors.  While with Maccabi, Parker was instrumental in helping the team rack up championship victories.  He joined the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and helped the team to its first playoff berth and first division title.  In fact, Maccabi beat the Raptors in an exhibition match at the Air Canada Centre on October 16, 2005, 105-103.  The Raptors took revenge a year later, beating Maccabi 118-84 on October 19, 2006.  The Maccabi 2005 victory was reportedly the first time that a European basketball team beat an NBA team in North American.

Sadly, amid all of the hoopla, the Maccabi victory was not without its detractors.  Israeli news service Haaretz reported that more than 18,000 offensive, anti-Semitic tweets were posted on Twitter, mostly in the Spanish language, following the victory by the Israeli team.  The content was obscene and outrageous and I am not about to dignify these tweets by publicizing the words used.   This type of racist deluge is similar to the flood of obscene tweets that PK Subban, a Montreal Canadiens' hockey player faced a couple of weeks ago after the Canadiens beat the Boston Bruins in an NHL playoff hockey game(In Subban's case, the tweeters attacked the colour of his skin rather than his religion). 

The barrage of anti-Semitic tweets apparently emanated, primarily from Spain.  But it may have been indicative of a broader problem of widespread European anti-Semitism.  These tweets came only a week or so after the ADL published its global anti-Semitism survey, in which Greece captured the ignominious title of "most anti-Semitic country in Europe" with some 69% of Greeks described as espousing anti-Semitic views.  Moving to another part of Europe, the Jerusalem Post, this week, reported that some 75% of French Jews are considering leaving France, with a significant number citing concerns about anti-Semitism as a key factor. There have been numerous reports of anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine as current events have progressed in that country.  So taking everything into account, it is perhaps unsurprising that an Israeli basketball team has elicited an anti-Semitic response from some Europeans.  Hopefully these are only the actions of a small minority.

Overall, this Maccabi victory injected a huge dose of pride into Israeli society, which is always happy to celebrate national accomplishments.  Now if only the Israeli national soccer team could return to the World Cup, the country would really celebrate.  As it stands, Israel was only able to qualify for the World Cup of Football in 1969.  It has faced an enormous qualifying battle since Israel is forced to compete against the best European teams rather than its neighbours.  (For my April Fool's column about this issue, click here)

As this year's World Cup gets underway in June, 2014, much of Israeli society is likely to grind to a standstill during some of the key matches, particularly the later rounds of the playoffs.  One could only imagine what would happen if Israel were to make it to the later rounds of the World Cup.  Hopefully one day we'll find out.  For now, Israelis will have to revel in sports accomplishments on the court floor rather than the football pitch. 

Congratulations to Maccabi - or, as they say in Israel, "Kol HaKavod!"



Sunday, May 4, 2014

Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Remembrance Day) - Through Music

It is one of the most difficult weeks in Israel.  Two of the most significant days of the year are commemorated within a week of each other.  Last Monday was "Yom Hashoah v'Hagevurah" - Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.  The link is to my blog entry from 2012.

Tonight marks the start of Yom Hazikaron in Israel - Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror.    I have provided a link to one of my previous blogs about this emotional day.

But I wanted to focus this time on a different aspect of this sombre day - the use of music.  Much of the most beautiful Israeli music has been written about loss, about war and about those who have fallen.  On Yom Hazikaron, the radio and TV stations play special Yom Hazikaron music all day.  At commemorative ceremonies, many different singers perform these songs throughout the country.  One can't help but weep while listening to so many of these songs, often written by those who have suffered the loss of a family member, close friend or fellow soldier.

In this youtube collection of Yom Hazikaron songs, Yaniv Siso has put together a collection of 99 songs.  He has dedicated the collection to his brother Netanel, who fell at the age of 23 while serving in the Israeli Defence Forces.


There are so many songs that it would be difficult to choose the most recommended.  But I have always found this song to be incredibly powerful - it is called "Ma Avorech" (link includes lyrics and tranlation)


This next piece is a powerful song by Boaz Sharabi - "kshe Tavo" - "when you come back," which is dedicated to Israeli Air Force pilot Ron Arad who went missing in 1986. 

And finally, I thought it would be worthwile this song "Tzair L'Netzach," performed by Rami Kleinstein:

These are just a few examples of the powerful music that Israelis might hear on Yom Hazikaron.  It is really a unique aspect of the commemoration of such a solemn holiday.  Certainly, I cannnot think of anything comparable in Canada or the United States.  This music stirs the hearts and souls of Israelis everywhere as they remember those who have fallen - and as they sing and hope for an end to the wars and strife that have plagued Israel and the Middle East.