This Jew Won't Bunt

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

Like the committee, I, too, was changing my mind, but in the opposite direction. I had stayed the course for months, even after reading chilling accounts of car-bomb attacks in central Jerusalem, and in the beautiful beach city of Netanya, 30 miles north of Tel Aviv. I still had planned to go, even after talking with my many Israeli comrades, a majority of whom urged me to stay away this summer.

The June 1 bombing at the Tel Aviv beachfront swayed me that my Israeli friends -- none of whom would ever be accused of being wimps -- were right.

I did appreciate the committee's predicament: They had worked for almost four years to prepare for the Games' 16th edition: If they did send a team to Israel in July, they'd be placing hundreds of athletes -- many of them teens -- into a high-risk, tense setting that the U.S. State Department officially has advised its citizens to avoid. (Ten Arizonans were selected for the U.S. team. I spoke with four of the other nine last week -- two said they were going to Israel, two said they weren't).

The "Bad News Jews" competed in an international tournament in Orlando in January.
The "Bad News Jews" competed in an international tournament in Orlando in January.

But if they chose not to send a team, the Americans surely would incur the wrath of the Israeli government. The Israelis didn't seem likely to postpone the Games and "bow to terrorism," as more than one Israeli editorial writer phrased it.

Though the Spivak/Weinstein tandem assured the U.S. contingent in a June 20 e-mail that, "there was no political or financial 'pressure' exerted on Maccabi USA to participate at the 16th Maccabiah," the opposite seems more plausible.

One way or the other, the import of the decision could not have been overestimated -- politically, financially, spiritually and psychologically. The tapestry shared between Israelis and Jews from around the world is rich and complex, with each constantly demanding support from and seeking to exert influence over the other.

The dynamic that evolved over this year's Maccabiah Games is a case in point.

I had been anticipating this summer's trip to Israel since being named head coach of the fastpitch softball team more than a year ago: My own experiences as a player in Israel at the 1985, 1989 and 1993 Games were wondrous, and I'd hungered to lead a team of men who could play some ball -- and were fun guys to boot.

I wanted my guys to feel the same unbridled joy I'd felt after we upset the Canadians in '85 and '89 to win gold medals. Just as important, I wanted the team to explore Israel, and to learn some things about themselves and their common heritage.

But I didn't count on the tremendous escalation in violence that has haunted Israel since last September. It's news there on a day when there hasn't been a bombing or violent death of a child (Israeli and/or Palestinian).

Tel Aviv is Israel's largest city, but until the recent madness had been spared much of the terrorism that again has dominated headlines in the nation of 6 million since last September. Not any longer.

"Scratch an Israeli," a story in the Jerusalem Post started a few weeks ago, "and under the surface you're likely to find some kind of psychological trauma carried along like an invisible backpack. These last eight months of daily terror and bad news add a new stratified layer of trauma to the battered Israeli psyche."

Even before the Tel Aviv bombing, I was starting to have second thoughts about what lay ahead for our team. Already, I'd lost one player, and a good one at that, because he (and, most assuredly, his wife) feared he'd fall prey to a terrorist act.

On June 3, two days after the Tel Aviv bombing, Jon Puklin -- one of our frontline players and a schoolteacher/coach from Illinois -- sent out an e-mail. "Puck" earlier had told me how much it would mean to him to place a note to God about his late father in the Wailing Wall. Second, he said, it would be incredible to win a gold medal for himself and his country.

Now, things were different.

"I just want you guys to know that I am having serious reservations about going to Israel after this past weekend's events," Puklin wrote. "My wife is pregnant. Just thought you should know. What is the committee's position on these recent events and our safety?"

We found out the next day, when the honchos I'd be writing to less than two weeks later, issued a loud-and-clear message to the 600-or-so American athletes on the team, and to parents, coaches, sponsors and others: We want the Games postponed, and we're going to tell Israel as soon as we can. The implication to every person with whom I spoke was obvious: If the Israelis don't postpone, the U.S. ain't going.

The committee's apparent decision not to go had not been met with unanimous approval. Messages danced around the Internet, a call-and-response in the tradition of a people who usually welcome a spirited debate over almost anything.

One man wrote, "If and when, God forbid, there is an all-out war or if the State of Israel asks us not to come, we should listen. However, I believe it is more important to go at this time than it will be at any time in the future."

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