“I’m not a Zionist, I’m not really Jewish, but I am Israeli,” Willy Workman tells me. As we enter the café under the Maccabi Haifa stadium, he slaps a waiter on the shoulder. “Achi!” (trans. ‘bro’), he proclaims in strongly accented Hebrew. And then, switching quickly to English, “Table for three?”
This year, Workman signed on as a forward to the Maccabi Hunter Haifa team through 2018. He recounted his experience of joining the team. “I was working with my agent who was trying to find me a job. Then I told him I was Jewish, I blurted it out on the phone one day. He was like, ‘Hold the phone. This is huge.’ From that moment forth all of our attention was focused on coming to Israel. I’m good, but I need an in.” He has since worked his way up through the ranks of the Israeli basketball circuit, now averaging about 29 minutes of play per game, on one of the country’s top teams.
I asked Workman what it was like for him to make Aliyah and declare allegiance to the Jewish State. “I had heard of Shabbat before, [as in] ‘Shabbat shalom.” When he came to Israel, his General Manager quickly set him up with an Israeli passport.
Workman’s path to professional basketball is common. Israeli basketball is full of foreign nationals. Israel is a member of the European basketball league, FIBA EuroLeague, which leaves space on the court of a restricted number of non-native born players. While specific regulations vary somewhat by country, the international EuroZone League, FIBA, has standardized rules that are followed for international competitions with a maximum of two foreigners and one naturalized citizen. Players, primarily Americans, who don’t make the cut for a robust career in the U.S. National Basketball Association, often opt to join a European team as an avenue toward further training and economic stability.
As a Jewish State, Israel often disrupts the categorization of ‘us’ (Israeli) and ‘them.’ This disruption stems primarily from the Israeli Law of Return, open to Jews globally. If a person can prove that have one Jewish grandparent or are married to a Jew and are not affiliated with a different religion, they are eligible for Israeli citizenship. Workman, for instance, simply had to provide a letter from his grandparent’s rabbi certifying that his mother and his mother’s mother are Jewish.
The exact numerical limits on both foreign players and naturalized citizens have varied in Israel. Both are issues of long-standing contention, setting players against the Israeli Basketball Administration. When a coach has to choose between an Israeli-born player and the others on his team, he typically gives preference to the higher-quality, non-native players. But without sufficient play time, Israel-born players don’t get the statistics they need on the court to advance. The fight brings to light the question of who counts as an Israeli as opposed to an import to the team.
Several times, the Israeli Basketball Players’ Association have gone on a general strike. In 2013, The Israel Basketball League settled on a compromise with the Players’ Association: a maximum of five foreign players for every game with two Israelis on the court at all time and financial incentives for to teams that bring on less foreigners.
This rule includes a special loophole for Jewish Americans who had immigrated to Israel. American-born Jews and others with naturalized Israeli citizenship count as Israelis in terms of the requirement to have two Israelis on the court at a given time. While there is no limit on naturalized players in Israel, no team has more than two, according the Israeli Basketball Association. However, the Israeli national team can only include one naturalized player for international games. Willy Workman’s team, Maccabi Haifa, is one of very few regional teams that hosts to two naturalized citizens on their team.
Undergirding the intensity of these negotiations is the fundamental tension of Israel as a Jewish State. Basketball is a national pastime. When Tel Aviv played the Russian basketball team CSKA in 2014, at least 10,000 fans traveled with them from Israel to Assago, Italy. The sport engenders Israelis with a sense of pride and collective identity through shared fandom. Watching Israel win a game also presents an avenue for the international Jewish community to connect with Israel on their home turf, both as fans and as potential players.
But local fans often feel distance from American Jewish players on their favorite teams. As Workman commented, “Every country has to reconcile keeping the fans interested and the fact that the best players are from America.” Team management wants players that will bring their team to victory, but victory means little if the team is unable to draw their local crowd. “Israelis want to see Israeli players. They want the homegrown kid to be a star.”
I asked Mary, Workman’s girlfriend, what she would do if Workman stayed on for his whole professional basketball career. Mary laughed, “This is temporary, even if it’s for eight more years, it’s not going to be forever.” Eventually, they’ll leave Haifa and head back to the U.S., maybe to Massachusetts where he’s from, or South Carolina where she’s from. They’re not ruling anything out in terms of where they’ll next call home.
Liya Rechtman is the former manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life in Washington. Now in the master’s program at Harvard Divinity School, she was a Dorot Fellow in 2016-2017 living in Jerusalem when she wrote this article. She updated Workman’s stats for 2018.