Full-Contact Basketball

The link between athletic and social behaviors in Israel

The brand of basketball in Israel reflects a survivor’s mentality: tough and proud, impulsive and defensive.

In practices and games, in the painted area or beyond the three-point line, physicality is relentless. Body checks, sharp elbows and swiping hands — the referees let it go. Without the ball, the body is a weapon; with the ball, it’s protection. Everyone competes. They play to win.

The ubiquity of flops to the floor and of exaggerated bellows of pain obfuscates the clear stigma stitched to an injury. I recently sprained my ankle and was sidelined for nearly a month. After a week of unfruitful rehabilitation and rest, sardonic remarks mounted, as the pressure to play from club management, teammates and trainers became palpable.

Indeed, teammates confirmed that this reality was not my overwrought paranoia: “In Israel, if you’re out more than a week, people start to wonder, Are you faking it?” an Israeli teammate told me. Another “local” leveled with me: “You’re right to feel this pressure — because you are being judged. That’s the truth. There is something wrong with Israeli athletics.”

Even the trainers will rush you back and tell you to “suck it up.” Because if they don’t, the team will fire them and look for a new trainer.

With regard to a coach’s criticism, players are defensive, quick to explain a mistake, reluctant to nod in admission of it. They harbor intra-team suspicions — a jump shot instead of a pass can be interpreted as malice. Overall, onlookers see unabashed and unbridled emotion: Players react to a three-pointer with a championship celebration as quickly as an errant whistle will make a coach apoplectic.

I frequently discuss these observations with my good friend and teammate Eran. Pertaining to the basketball court and beyond, he shares my “survivor” characterization: “You’re either a friend or an enemy,” he says, offering the lengths to which he would go and the sacrifices he would make for his good friends. “Friends are family. Israelis are unique in this way; they will literally die for their friends.”

The families whom I have met have embraced me, unconditionally, from the outset. They often worry where I will be on Shabbat dinner, if not in their homes. Particularly for men, a social tenderness flourishes below the surface of a macho culture. Friends embrace with a softer, gentler and more intimate touch.

But for strangers, Israelis exhibit a competitive, survivor-like spirit. With incessant car-honking or shoulder collisions on the sidewalk, people push through the day despite you, not with you. Animated bickering on the street. Bitter inflection at the crosswalk. Because a survivor — or an embattled nation fixated on development and safety — has no time for the superficial, for sugarcoating, for measurement or grace.

Indulging impulse contradicts — or perhaps complements — the hardheaded, driven ethos in Israel. Cappuccinos propel and sustain long hours, and Marlboros relieve them. Workday discipline can appear ascetic, only to be unraveled by weekends of vodka/Red Bulls and promiscuity. And don’t be fooled: Israelis’ fit physiques belie their consumption of Ben & Jerry’s and sweet treats.

More innocuously, people might squeeze the warm bread and pastries — bare hands — before deciding on their purchase. Or they will lunge over the counter for a few falafels to prime their palates while awaiting their shawarma order. If I ask a stranger for directions somewhere, he won’t waste time explaining it — he’ll grab my iPhone and show me. They are partial to candor and suspicious of the genteel.

But these impulsive proclivities are not to be mistaken as uncouth. In fact, they make daily life refreshingly direct and efficient. In an otherwise Western society, the uniquely Jewish specter of misfortune renders certain conventions simply inconvenient.

While I fear over-distilling Israeli society, I am fascinated by the roots of these athletic and social behaviors. I ponder their relation to the foundational ideas of Israel, and how history has been internalized, portrayed and politically utilized. In my next column, I hope to grapple with this Israeli disposition — the realities that inspire it, the myths that underlie it, and the metanarratives that drive it. — Hayden Rooke-Ley