A Retired Israeli Basketball Player Is Taking On the Occupation
Why this matters
Elitzur Shomron, a recently promoted Israeli basketball team, is based in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. Palestinians cannot play for Elitzur Shomron or come watch them play. A retired Israeli basketball player teamed up with a well-known liberal lawyer to fight Elitzur Shomron's acceptance in professional Israeli basketball.
This past May, the Israeli basketball team Elitzur Shomron gained promotion to Liga Leumit, the second tier of Israeli basketball. For the first time, the small club entered the ecosystem of Israeli professional hoops. For the first time, the team was within reach of a European powerhouse like Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Generally speaking, that kind of scrappy overachievement is a feel-good story. But Elitzur Shomron plays in Kfar Tapuach, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory that has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. There will never be a Palestinian player for Elitzur Shomron. Palestinian residents of the region can’t attend Elitzur Shomron games. Without a work permit, they are unlikely to be allowed to enter Kfar Tapuach.
In response to Elitzur Shomron’s promotion, a long-retired hooper named Or Goren teamed up with a crusading lawyer named Michael Sfard to take a surprising course of action. On behalf of Goren, Sfard wrote a letter to FIBA, the International Basketball Federation. The promotion was a violation “that causes grave harm to millions of people, severely impinging their rights and dignity,” Sfard wrote. Along with another promoted West Bank settlement club, Maccabi Ma’ale Adumim, the lawyer explained, Elitzur Shomron operates “in an area that is home to millions of Palestinians” and in “communities established for Israeli settlers exclusively and to which Palestinians are denied entry.” The clubs, he wrote, "practice segregation.”
Goren and Sfard’s letter wasn’t just an articulation of an ethical point. Liga Leumit operates under the jurisdiction of the IBBA, the Israeli Basketball Association. In turn, the IBBA operates within the jurisdiction of FIBA. The letter argued that the IBBA was in violation of FIBA regulations regarding which organizations govern certain territories. Elitzur Shomron is in Palestine, and therefore it should be playing under the PBF, the Palestinian Basketball Federation. Furthermore, as it states in its various bylaws and statutes, FIBA is explicitly opposed to discrimination. The organization reinforced this point publicly in a highfalutin open letter published during the summer of 2020, in the wake of the sweeping racial justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. FIBA president Hamane Niang declared that FIBA “unequivocally condemns all forms of discrimination as an attack on an individual’s basic human rights.”
Sfard is a veteran of long-shot legal battles within the Israeli legal system; over and over, he has represented Israelis refusing service in the Israeli Defense Forces or Palestinians fighting for their land rights in Israeli courts. A 2012 New York Times profile called him ”the left’s leading lawyer in Israel.” Goren is an activism neophyte. Together, they are taking a unique legal tack. Effectively, their letter argued that Elitzur Shomron – and the settler movement it represents – was breaking the laws of basketball.
Sfard is a lifer in the fight against Israeli occupation. As he told the Times in the 2012 profile, “I don’t see emigration as something that can be happy, only a tragedy. But if I stay here, I have to fight against things being done in my name.” Goren, 65, had a long career in Ligat HaAl, the top division of Israeli basketball, then went into the diamond business. As he explains happily over a Zoom video call while wearing a T-shirt from the skateboard company Alien Workshop, he’s a capitalist who loves Israel.
“I’m sure you’re not familiar with me,” Goren says, with a self-aware smile. “I was really well-known in Israel years ago. There was only one TV channel, and people used to watch basketball. I’m number five in all-time points scored!”
Goren grew up on a kibbutz, a collectivist agricultural community, called Mishmar HaEmek, that had its own basketball team and a lot of hoops pride. “My father was a basketball player. I was born into basketball,” Goren said. “I remember as a kid standing for hours and hours and hours on a sunny day, barefoot on hot asphalt, shooting and shooting.” He first played for the Israeli national team at age 18. After his mandatory army service, he played at the University of Houston for two seasons. “I was there before Phi Slama Jama,” he makes sure to point out, referencing Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler’s famous 1980s Houston teams. “Just when I left, it started!”
Goren was a shooting guard with a quick trigger. “Maybe some people think that I cared more about points than other aspects of the game,” he said with a shrug. “I used to love to see the ball go into the net.” For nearly two decades, he played for a handful of clubs throughout Ligat HaAl, won trophies, and scored buckets. In the early 1990s, he retired and transitioned to a life of business and of raising his family.
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Privately, Goren has always been one of a now-decreasing number of Israelis who hope for peace via a two-state solution, which would mean the establishment of a Palestinian state on the occupied Palestinian territories. The settlers dream of annexing all of the Palestinian territories for Jews only. They are extremely well-funded, enjoy the tacit support of the state of Israel, and are often violent: Over just a 10-day span in October, security officials recorded more than 100 criminal acts committed by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. “I was always against the settlement movement,” he says. “I always considered myself to belong to the left part of Israeli politics. But, actually, I’m a little bit of a lazy person.”
Despite his personal predilections, Goren had never been motivated to take political action. “But when I heard this team Elitzur Shomron went up to the second league, I thought that maybe, this will be my spot: to add value, to fight, to resist the settlement movement,” he said. “So I contacted Michael Sfard.”
Elitzur Shomron was actually the second club from a settlement to win promotion into Liga Leumit, after Maccabi Ma’ale Adumim. But the reason that Elitzur Shomron’s promotion caught Goren’s eye was because the club’s benefactors explicitly and loudly championed the promotion as a political act.
Yossi Dagan is one of the most prominent names in the settler movement. He’s the head of the Samaria Regional Council, the organization that oversees Kfar Tapuach, the settlement where the Elitzur Shomron team plays. "Samaria” is a biblical term for the West Bank. It's used by the State of Israel but not by the United States. Settlers like Dagan brandish the term “Samaria” to suggest historical Jewish rights to Palestinian land.
After the club’s promotion, Dagan said in the media, “Our goal is to be the queen in this story, to, God willing, make it to Ligat LaAl too and play in European leagues as well.” Top Israeli clubs like Maccabi Tel Aviv are eligible to compete in FIBA-run European competitions where they compete against the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. “The day TV broadcasts a game between Elitzur Shomron and Maccabi Tel Aviv from the basketball court in Samaria – that will be the real revolution. We want to show that Samaria is like any other area in the State of Israel.” Effectively, Dagan wants to sportswash the settler movement.
For Goren, hearing Dagan’s comments was infuriating. “I’m not sure he knows how people play basketball,” Goren said of Dagan. “I don’t know if he ever saw a basketball in his life. It is all political. When he said that Samaria is part of Israel, I really felt that I must do something.”
A few years ago, Goren became newly active on Facebook. If hearing that a sixty-something is “newly active on Facebook” induces in you a sense of dread, that’s understandable. But Goren found the social media platform to be a valuable and safe way to express his opinions. “I see the settlements as the worst thing to happen to Israel,” he says. “The settlers are the real enemy of Israel. As sad as it is, those religious fanatic people are leading Israel to our self-destruction. When I started to write on Facebook, I started to feel that there are some people who care about me” – meaning, about him as a public figure, as a former player. From his exchanges on Facebook, he started to feel that folks who weren’t usually subjected to his point of view – maybe old school hoops fans – were reading his posts.
On fiscal policies, Goren says, “I’m not a kibbutznik.” He doesn’t ascribe to the values of the original, hardcore kibbutzim, which were created as joyfully radical, explicitly socialist entities: “I’m not a communist!” For many years, he was happy doing little else but making money and watching his kids. He knows that many of his countrymates live their lives the same way and actively ignore the occupation. “The majority of Israelis don’t visit the West Bank. They live their own life in Tel Aviv. It’s a beautiful, long party. And they don’t care what’s going on there” in the occupied territories.
Goren says that in his private life he was always paying attention. Elitzur Shomron’s promotion was his public call to action. Now, perhaps quixotically, Goren believes “if FIBA will not allow the IBBA to let Elitzur Shomron play in the second league, people will realize that something is wrong.” It’s the crux of Goren and Sfard’s novel approach. Like many activists fighting the occupation, they want international pressure on Israel. But they’re not reaching out to the United Nations or to the International Criminal Court. They’re not pushing the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. They’re reaching out to a basketball body. Ultimately, Goren’s a hoops guy. It’s what he knows. To him, it’s what makes sense.
Before we wrap up our chat, Goren tells me an anecdote about his playing days. When he was on the Israeli national team, they played Germany several times. And every time they did, he and his teammates would point out a German player to one another and joke, I wonder what his grandfather was doing in the 1940s. Now Goren thinks about what his own grandchildren will think of him when they’re older.
“I want to contribute as much as I can so they will be proud that their grandfather did the best he can in order to stop this apartheid,” he says. He’s not too worried about blowback. He feels he is both financially and socially secure enough to take on political exposure. (As for his personal expenditure, that’s unclear, as he has elected to keep the details of his arrangement with Sfard private.) He does admit that before he sent the letter, “my mother was a little bit worried.”
Ultimately, while he’s taking this specific and limited action, Goren is most concerned with the future of his country. “I always believed that Israel is really seeking peace,” he says. “That we do whatever it takes, whatever we can, to reach peace. I always thought so. Now, in the last five years, I think that the main obstacle for peace is Israel. I think Israel is doing whatever it can not to reach peace. It drives me crazy.”
The Goren-Sfard letter states that Palestine being under military occupation “does not alter its status as a state, nor does it undermine the territorial exclusivity of the PBF in this area in the context of FIBA rules.”
It goes on: “It is no secret that the clubs” – Elitzur Shomron and Maccabi Ma’ale Adumim – “aim to serve only Jews living in the West Bank, both as players and spectators. They are simply part of the Israeli settlement enterprise, which is designed entirely to promote Jewish supremacy at the expense of the Palestian majority.”
FIBA’s own statutes, meanwhile, “enshrine the prohibition on discrimination as a fundamental principle for the operation of the federation and as a basic value.”
Sfard and Goren sent the letter out both physically and by email to FIBA President Hamane Niang, along with a variety of other FIBA dignitaries within FIBA Europe and FIBA Asia (including FIBA Asia Chairman and Basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming). They also sent the letter to a variety of professional FIBA email accounts and, when they couldn’t find them, to personal accounts, including at least one Hotmail account.
The letter states plainly, “So long as the teams affiliated with the IBBA continue to operate outside its regulatory boundaries, the IBBA is in breach of FIBA.” Politely, the letter adds, “We appeal to you to take immediate action using whatever means at your disposal to put an end to the violations.” And finally it says, “We thank you for your attention.” Goren and Sfard are still awaiting a response.
In the meantime, Goren has gotten antsy. In mid-October, he attended Elitzur Shomron’s first home game in Liga Leumit. “I decided to go and demonstrate against them by myself,” he said in an email that included a photo of himself standing alone holding a sign reading “SAY NO TO APARTHEID IN BASKETBALL.” “Doing it was absolutely against my nature,” he wrote. “In my whole life I only participated in a demonstration once and it was 40 years ago and together with four hundred thousand other people. I was looking for every excuse not to do it, but something was burning inside me. I had to do it.”
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