Israel needs fans, not cheerleaders

As the New England Patriots qualified for yet another Super Bowl, my thoughts went to my late father-in-law, Harvey Kirstein, z”l, a huge fan of the team and season-ticket holder who died tragically before they became successful and never saw any of their triumphs.

It was Harvey who took me to my first game on my first trip to the United States, which was also my honeymoon. Having grown up in Britain and lived in Israel, I had no idea what was happening on the field. But I was fascinated by the cheerleaders, another example of American popular culture that was new and unfamiliar as well as strangely alluring. No matter what was happening on the field, they pranced and danced, shaking their sculpted bods and waving their pom-poms, the same plastic smiles on their perfect faces.

It prompted some thoughts on the difference between fans and cheerleaders. Whereas cheerleaders do their thing regardless of the success of the team or lack thereof, fans are much more passionately engaged. They want the team to do well — but they do not spare their opinions, thoughts and criticisms when the team is doing badly. Do we need a new quarterback? Is the head coach up to the job? Are we drafting the right players? Do we have the right game plan?

This difference between engaged fans and cheerleaders is at the center of a debate within the American-Jewish community between those who would have us play the part of cheerleaders and those who would have us be fans. 

For much of my life, I was a cheerleader. I didn’t want to hear anything negative about Israel. After all, I reasoned, it has enough critics in the world. It didn’t need one more.

This changed somewhat in the eight years I actually lived in Israel, including the period when I served in the Israel Defense Forces. Living there gave me permission to be as critical as I liked and to take full part in the democratic life of the country. After all, the decisions of the government affected every aspect of my life — including my security and that of my family. But once I returned to the Diaspora, my previous attitude reasserted itself.

For two years, during which I worked for an organization called The Israel Project, this “hear no evil” attitude became the watchword of my professional work. My job was to work with foreign journalists, providing them with access to Israeli sources and information. But whenever the subject of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or its settlement-building arose, my only recourse was to try to talk about something else. As a cheerleader, I had nothing useful to contribute.

Instead, I would try to divert attention to Israel’s high-tech industry, its growing wine industry, alternative energy programs, water purification plants and drip agriculture technology, as well as its medical advances. Almost every day, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem sends out information on these topics as well as Tel Aviv nightlife, pop music, the booming gay scene — anything other than settlements and the occupation.

Eventually, I reached a point when I no longer wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to engage Israel fully, with my heart and my mind, instead of kicking up my legs and waving a pom-pom. I concluded that this would be healthier and more honest for me and healthier for Israel as well. Hence, my decision to join J Street.

Going back to the world of professional football, there is another analogy that may be apt. In Washington, D.C., fans are quite engaged — but need to be much more engaged — in the controversy surrounding the name of the local franchise. Many Native Americans and others have spoken out against the name “Redskins,” but the team owner is not listening. I predict that he will only start listening when a critical mass of the team’s fans — those who fill stadium seats, buy season tickets and team gear — start speaking out against the name.

So it is with Israel. As fans, we have a privileged position. We have a chance to be listened to in a way that uninvolved observers never would be. We must express our unconditional love for Israel. But we must also speak out about the direction in which the country is headed.

Do we need a new quarterback, a new manager, a new game plan? Fans can debate this. Cheerleaders cannot. This government has failed to pursue peace with the same conviction that it has pursued settlements. The Palestinians also share some of the blame for the failure of peace talks, but the fact remains that if the occupation continues, there will soon be a Palestinian majority in the land that Israel controls. At that point, Israel will have to choose between remaining a Jewish homeland and remaining a democracy. 

When a team has a bad season, or a series of bad seasons, some fans get discouraged and walk away. The cheerleaders continue prancing. But it is those fans who stay — and who vocalize their feelings — that constitute the heart and soul of the franchise.

I want to be in that number.

Alan Elsner is vice president for communications at J Street.

Dutch soccer director vows to punish anti-Jewish chanters

The director of a soccer team from the Dutch city of Utrecht has vowed to punish fans who sang anti-Semitic chants during a recent match.

“Racism will not be tolerated in the stadium,” Wilco van Schaik, general director of FC Utrecht, told the Dutch news agency ANP. The report did not specify what steps would be taken against the fans.

The chants were made during in a sing-along led by Danny Temming, a Dutch folk singer, who has distanced himself from the anti-Jewish slogans during the match in Utrecht on Oct. 26.

Temming told the daily AD that he “only began to sing the first lines” during the match, “and then the fans [of Utrecht’s soccer team] started to sing their own texts.”

The match last Friday was between FC Utrecht and FC Groningen.

Teun den Hartog, chairman of FC Utrecht’s fan club, said a flyer instructing fans how to behave was passed out before the match, in an effort to educate fans on refraining from “racist slogans.”

The leading soccer club ADO Den Haag banned eight fans in April from entering the city's soccer stadium for five to 10 years, following protests by the Hague-based watchdog group CIDI and court instructions. The fans were filmed shouting “Hamas, Jews to the gas” during a match with the Amsterdam soccer club Ajax.

Dutch soccer fans often refer to players and supporters of Ajax as “Jews” at matches. Ajax supporters often wave Israeli flags, symbolism that has become associated with the soccer club.

Israel’s Grand Duo

Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram think they can win the upcoming U.S. Open. Come again? The Grand Slam tennis tournament that no Israeli has come close to winning?

“Every tournament we enter we think we can win,” Ram said.

Erlich and Ram nearly backed that up two years ago at Wimbledon. They reached the doubles semifinals, and Ram butted into the mixed doubles final. That makes them the top Israeli Grand Slam duo in history.

Last month, Erlich and Ram were in the heat of the Mercedes-Benz Cup on the UCLA courts, reaching the final. The U.S. Open begins in New York on Aug. 29.

“We’re playing at a really high level,” Ram said, “and we’re communicating well.”

They yak in Hebrew. But the inseparable friends also could banter in English and Spanish, thanks to their South American heritage, but they consider themselves “100 percent Israeli,” as Erlich put it.

Erlich was a 1-year-old when his grandfather packed up the family in Argentina and landed in Haifa. Ram was 5 when his parents said it was time to leave Uruguay and make Jerusalem home.

Erlich, 28, and Ram, 25, have won a combined $1 million in career prize money.

The night after chatting with The Journal, Erlich and Ram beat a French team in three tight sets in the L.A. quarterfinals.

A sparse crowd stayed until the midnight finish. Among the diehards was Avi Suriel, who led his wife and two sons in cheers for the Israelis. No wonder. He served four years in the Israeli military before coming to Los Angeles at age 25.

“I can’t believe more from our Jewish community aren’t here,” he said.

Erlich appreciated the support.

“Thanks for waiting,” he said to fans as he left the court.

For more information on the U.S. Open, visit

Trade You a Jutze For a Koufax

Just when baseball fans were denied the miracle of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series, another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes up to bat. The American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) has commissioned the printing of 15,000 sets of “America’s Jews in America’s Game” baseball cards. Featuring all 142 Jews who played in the major leagues from 1871 through the 2003 All-Star break, this collector’s edition is as rare as — well, as rare as a Jewish professional athlete.

The brainchild of Martin Abramowitz and his then 11-year-old son, Jacob, the cards were born out of the collector’s unquenchable thirst for a complete set of Jewish ballplayer cards. Four years ago, Abramowitz lamented aloud that he had only 90 of the 100 existing baseball cards that featured Jewish players, and that some 40-plus Jewish players never even had a card.

“Why don’t you make your own cards?” suggested Jacob, who then sketched the set’s logo, a baseball inside a Star of David, on a napkin.

“There are many paths to Jewish identity and Jewish engagement. Sports are one such path, and I realized the cards could enrich that path for youngsters,” said Abramowitz, who lives in the Boston area. “Plus, I loved the idea of a father-son project.”

So Abramowitz and son set out to compile a definitive roster, uncover missing photos and locate minor league records. And what would baseball cards be without bios and elaborate stats? Of the 142 players included in the set, 123 had two Jewish parents, six had Jewish mothers, seven had Jewish fathers (but practiced only Judaism) and six were converts. And the stats don’t stop there. The Jewish players’ .265 collective batting average is three points higher than the collective average of all players from 1871-2002. Jewish players hit 2,032 home runs, 10,602 RBI’s, and pitched five of the 230 no-hitters. There were three descendants of rabbis, six pairs of brothers, 12 players with one-game careers and 10 players who changed their names.

With the help of MLB photographer George Brace, Abramowitz’s tireless research, and a little Jewish geography (Jacob’s Camp Ramah cabin-mate happened to be the son of Fleer Trading Card Company owner Roger Grass), the cards rounded third. Then the AJHS donated $25,000 to cover the licensing and publishing fees, and one collector’s dream became a cultural reality.

“The cards exemplify the AJHS’s mission of fostering an appreciation of the Jewish contribution to American life,” said Michael Feldberg, AJHS executive director .

A contribution that often goes unnoticed. Sure you’ve heard of Shawn Green and Sandy Koufax, but what about Ike Danning and Alfred Jutze? “The cards give a richness and texture and reality to the memory of these oft-overlooked players,” Abramowitz said.

For more information, go to