This Jew Won't Bunt

Why I pulled the U.S. fastpitch softball team from this year's Jewish Olympics

I was watching CNN on the evening of June 1. The news hit me hard.

"It was the beginning of the Sabbath weekend," anchor Bill Hemmer said, "and countless young Israelis were out to enjoy a Friday night. The mood shattered, though, when a suicide bomber wandered into the crowd and blew himself up. The result was carnage: 17 dead, at least 86 injured. The blast hit a popular nightclub on the shores of the Mediterranean in the city of Tel Aviv."

The camera cut away to an eerily lit tableau of death and destruction, of screaming victims and frantic emergency crews. A close-up of a sign appeared -- the Dophinarium. I was floored. The popular club along the seafront promenade was one of our hangouts during my three trips to Israel (1985, '89 and '93) as a member of the United States Maccabiah Fastpitch Softball team.

Staff writer Paul Rubin collects a gold medal at the 1985 Maccabiah Games.
Staff writer Paul Rubin collects a gold medal at the 1985 Maccabiah Games.
A sadly typical scene in Israel in recent months, this one after the Tel Aviv bombing.
courtesy of the Associated Press
A sadly typical scene in Israel in recent months, this one after the Tel Aviv bombing.

My next thought went to my ball team, the 2001 edition of the Bad News Jews, as we'd dubbed ourselves. As head coach, I had worked for a year putting together a fastpitch team of Jewish-American players to compete in the quadrennial Maccabiah Games this July.

Now I knew that, short of a miracle, our dream of competing for a gold medal in Israel surely was dead.


On the evening of June 14, I sent e-mails to Bob Spivak and Jordan Weinstein, two leaders of the overall United States Macabbiah team.

"I know that you have put your hearts and souls into the total effort, as have I with our fastpitch program," I wrote them. "However, I can only conclude that your 'main priority' has shifted from the safety of the U.S. athletes to keeping the peace with the Israeli faction of the World Maccabi committee. After speaking with a majority of my squad this afternoon, it is apparent that we will NOT be able to field a team at the Games if they are held next month."

As I pressed the "send" button on my computer, I was overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and anger. In a flash, the Bad News Jews had become just bad news.

The reason for my sadness was simple: I knew that my squad, 11 terrific guys from around the nation, would not get to wear the U.S. uniform in Israel at one of the world's largest sporting events, the so-called Jewish Olympics (more than 5,000 athletes from 53 countries competed in 36 sports at the 1997 Games).

Nor would they have the opportunity to seek a gold medal, an honor I'd had three times, winning gold twice, and silver once.

Perhaps most important, my guys wouldn't share the joy of exploring Israel, wandering freely through the ancient streets of Jerusalem, or checking out the shops (and the Israeli women) on Tel Aviv's bustling streets.

The targets of my anger were more complex.

I was infuriated at the madmen who, with bloody terrorist act after act, had driven a stake into my team's heart. I was disgusted with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for releasing dozens of terrorists from jails last fall, an act that led to the extraordinary escalation in violence against Israeli citizens.

My well of anger also extended to the United States Committee Sports for Israel, the nonprofit organization charged with the mammoth task of pulling together the U.S. Maccabiah team every four years.

Earlier on June 14, I learned that the Philadelphia-based committee had capitulated at the last minute to political pressures from top members of the Israeli government, and heavy-hitting American financial backers.

The pressures may be summarized like this: We know that you on the committee want the Games postponed for a year, and that you probably won't take a team to Israel if the Games do go on as scheduled. But please, PLEASE, don't let us down! YOU MUST GO TO ISRAEL!

Just 10 days earlier, Spivak (the president of Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel) and Weinstein (chairman of the U.S. Maccabiah Steering Committee) had issued an urgent message:

"Maccabi USA always has, and continues to focus on the best interests of the team as our main priority. With this in mind, the Maccabi USA Executive Committee met on Saturday night, June 2, to review many issues affecting the US Maccabiah Team and the 16th Maccabiah Games in light of the increase in terrorism in Israel. Therefore, Maccabi USA will immediately meet with Maccabi World Union to urge the postponement of the 16th Maccabiah Games."

But on June 14, the committee dramatically reversed field about U.S. participation in the Games. Now, Spivak/Weinstein proclaimed, the U.S would attend:

"We believe that now more than ever the 16th Maccabiah Games are an historic moment and will be an incredible experience for all."

I was stunned. And I knew immediately that our fastpitch team was kaput. Four of my 11 players had told me in the preceding week that they flat didn't want to make the trip to Israel under the current perilous circumstances. Thank God, they'd told me, our leaders have common sense.

Another three players were iffy, at best. That meant we wouldn't be able to field a team this July, even if I wanted to.

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