fbpx

Auburn Coach Wants to Start “Abraham Accords Cup” Basketball Tourney in Israel, Arab States

With the normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab states, Pearl’s vision of an Abraham Accords Cup could become a reality in due time.
[additional-authors]
August 25, 2022
Auburn playing Israel Photo courtesy Auburn Athletics

The Auburn University Men’s Basketball team just completed a visit to Israel, becoming the first major American college basketball program to do so.

The trip had been a long-term goal for the team’s head coach, Bruce Pearl. In 2009, Pearl was the coach of the United States men’s basketball team in Israel at the Maccabi Games. The team won gold, and that would also be Coach Pearl’s first of several subsequent visits to Israel.

“I’m a Jewish American basketball coach and I’m a proud Zionist,” Pearl, 62, told The Journal. “Israel loves basketball and Israeli basketball’s really good. They pay well, have a great, great following and obviously it’s a country that has a great relationship with the United States. They love us and therefore they love the athletes that go [to Israel].”

Most of the Auburn Tigers players on the July 31-August 11 trip were first-time international travelers. They traveled from their campus in eastern Alabama to play in three basketball games during their eleven-day visit, with games against the Israel Under 20 National Team, the Israel All-Star Select Team and The Israel National Team.

ESPN reporter Roxy Bernstein, who traveled with Auburn to Israel and did the play-by-play for their games on TV, coined the trip as “Birthright for College Basketball.”

On their first night, Pearl led the team in the Kiddush and Hamotzi while overlooking Jerusalem. Over the next several days, they would have a sobering experience at Yad Vashem, put prayers in The Kotel, float in the Dead Sea and many players would be baptized in the Jordan River. 

Junior point guard Wendell Green Jr., who celebrated his 20th birthday during the trip described being Baptized in the Jordan River as the best experience of his life.

“Baptized in the Jordan River, truly a blessing! Thank you God,” Green wrote on Twitter. 

The team would travel into the Palestinian Territories for their tour of Bethlehem. There, they were led by tour guide Kamal Mukarker who shared a special kinship with the Auburn men’s basketball team. Mukarker is not only a revered tour guide, but he is also the coach of the Arab Orthodox Club Beit Jala basketball team in the Palestinian Basketball Premeire League. And from 2007-2009, Mukarker played on the Palestinian National Basketball team. He is a Greek Orthodox Christian who can give tours in English, Arabic, German and some Hebrew. 

Mukarker would spend an entire morning giving the team a tour of Bethlehem, including a visit to the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. There, the team sang “Silent Night.” Afterward, Mukarker would host the entire 48-person Auburn entourage for lunch at his home.

“I love my job because I feel I’m doing something for the peace between Israel and Palestinians,” Mukarker told The Journal. “Part of what I like to do is to let people look behind the curtains. This is what I always tell them. Come enter the Palestinian home, see how we sit, how we live, how we eat — all in the idea of humanizing the Palestinians in the eyes of Americans so that more and more people will feel safe to come here.”

Pearl said he and Mukarker laughed about the fact that in many ways, Arabs and Jews are more alike than Alabamians and Californians.

Pearl said he and Mukarker laughed about the fact that in many ways, Arabs and Jews are more alike than Alabamians and Californians. “It didn’t matter that this Jewish-American basketball coach wanted to come to Bethlehem and shake hands with a Palestinian-Christian basketball coach and go, ‘brother, there is way more that bonds us than separates us and divides us.’”

Although the trip to Bethlehem was only half of one day in their tour through Israel, it is emblematic of what Pearl’s long-term goal of his team’s trip to the Holy Land could become: The Abraham Accords Cup.

“I’m going to work on trying to get other college basketball teams to do this in the future,” Pearl said. “This tournament’s going to live and go to U.A.E. or Morocco or Bahrain and play in that country for a couple games. And then go to Israel and have that trip be normal, like no big deal.” 

Current NCAA rules allow for teams to do an international trip together every four years. In 2016, the UCLA Men’s Basketball team traveled to Australia. In 2019, the USC Men’s Basketball team traveled to Spain and France. 

With the normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab states, Pearl’s vision of an Abraham Accords Cup could become a reality in due time.

Stateside, Auburn’s biggest rival in athletics is their in-state nemesis, the University of Alabama. But Auburn’s visit to Israel caught the attention and praise of an Alabama alumnus who works in Israel advocacy. 

“Coach Pearl and Auburn University deserve a lot of credit for taking the basketball team to Israel,” said Boris Zilberman, Director of Public Policy and Strategy at the Christians United For Israel Action Fund. “Such an opportunity not only allows for growth on the court but, more importantly, off it. Seeing Israel firsthand and experiencing its rich history and diverse cultures is not something that can be replicated in a classroom. As an Alabama alumnus, I can only hope other universities in the Southeastern Conference take note and follow in the Tigers’ footsteps.” 

Still, with strained relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s and Palestine’s respective national basketball teams are unable to play each other in games. 

Ari Ingel, director of Creative Community for Peace, spoke about how Israel’s and the Palestinian Authority’s national teams can’t even play each other despite being neighbors. 

“It’s such a shame and absurd, because one thing that brings everybody together in Israel is sports and entertainment,” Ingel told The Journal. He cited the diverse makeup of the Israeli National Football (soccer) Team, comprising of Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim and Christian players. “Nothing represents the epitome of coexistence than sports there. So it’s a shame that due to anti-normalization efforts, the Israeli and the Palestinian teams can’t play each other.”

In the grand scheme of Middle East politics, Pearl bringing his college basketball team to Israel may seem small compared to the Abraham Accords. But if other college athletic programs follow in Auburn’s footsteps, Pearl hopes more progress can be made. 

Although he continually described the journey as “a sports trip,” Pearl’s daughter Jacqui, who traveled to Israel with the team, knows her father’s enthusiasm is rooted for his hopes for Israel’s future. Jacqui spoke about how her father is on the board of an organization called the U.S. Israel Education Association which sponsors educational tours to Israel for Members of Congress.

“I think sport has a very interesting way of bringing people together, and it’s a cool opportunity to marry sport with history and faith.”
– Jacqui Pearl

“I think sport has a very interesting way of bringing people together, and it’s a cool opportunity to marry sport with history and faith,” Jacqui, 36, said. “There’s nowhere better in the world you can get that than in Israel.”

Coach Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Men’s Basketball Team will be in Los Angeles to play the USC Trojans at the Galen Center on December 18, 2022.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Are We Going to Stop for Lunch?

So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.