Before a soccer match with Maccabi Tel Aviv last week, the Hungarian football team Ferencváros Torna Club paid tribute to István Tóth in what is being heralded as a meaningful move against a creeping antisemitism that has permeated the European sporting world among other spheres.
Tóth was a Ferencváros Torna player and coach in the 1940s before joining the anti-Nazi resistance and saving hundreds of lives, including Jews who he helped escape detention and probable death. Tóth was captured and executed in 1945.
Last week’s game in Budapest was dedicated to Tóth’s memory.
North Americans who were swept up (or bemused) by global soccer mania at the height of the World Cup last weekend can almost appreciate the depths of feeling the sport evokes in much of the world. National feelings – and other high emotions – understandably permeate fan expressions. What is more baffling from afar is the manner in which antisemitism has seeped into the culture of European sport. Among other manifestations, fans from some teams will ridicule or intimidate those of opponents by implying the players or their supporters are Jews. In one instance, fans plastered a town with images of Anne Frank in the opposing team’s uniform. Elsewhere, fans suggested the opponents lacked foreskins. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around: that accusations of Jewishness have been used as a tool of intimidation on a playing field. The closest analogy, perhaps, might be the example more common in North American sports, in which opponents are accused of homosexuality. But, with Europe’s history of antisemitism, and the alarming growth of extremist politics across the continent, this hints at a deeper problem. This is why the Budapest event, which was coordinated with the assistance of World Jewish Congress, was as significant as it was. It was an official statement against antisemitism in sport and a testament to a hero of the Holocaust era.
Meanwhile, in a sports competition some distance away, a variant form of political activism, not unrelated to antisemitism, was playing out.
The BDS movement has been trying to isolate Israel in social, economic and cultural spheres. Athletes from Iran and countries with other Israel-hating governments have thrown matches rather than legitimize the Zionist entity, or athletes have refused to shake hands with Israeli competitors. There are even groups urging a boycott of the next Eurovision song contest because, as Israel’s Netta Barzilai was the 2018 victor, Israel will be the host country for next year’s round.
The latest attempt at a boycott, though, comes with a happy ending – and a Canadian twist.
The Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team recently arrived in Israel to participate in the World Men’s Lacrosse Championships. Soccer may be “the world’s game” and hockey may be where many Canadians’ invest our emotional energies, but lacrosse is, officially, our national game. (In a bow to popular demand, Parliament some time ago declared hockey our national “winter” sport and lacrosse our national “summer” sport, but details.) While many Canadians have an almost religious devotion to hockey, the Iroquois refer to lacrosse as “the Creator’s Game.”
The Iroquois team arrived at Ben-Gurion airport with indigenous passports. A few years ago, the team was forced to forfeit their games when the host country, the United Kingdom, refused to accept their travel documents. Israel, on the other hand, welcomed the Iroquois passports after interventions from the Government of Canada and the Canadian embassy in Israel.
While diplomats and respected figures like Irwin Cotler intervened to help, the BDS movement tried to prevent the team from attending. It was a particularly nasty effort, since the Iroquois invented the game. It may have been in this very fact that the BDSers smelled a potential symbolic victory, no matter how offensive the impact would have been on the individual players and the tournament more broadly had the First Nations team – one of the sport’s powerhouses – been excluded. And, as is often the case with the BDS movement, their success would have hurt Arabs as much as anyone. The Iroquois Nationals will lead a coexistence lacrosse clinic for Arab and Jewish young people.
There is a history of friendship, however unlikely, between the Iroquois and Israelis, both indigenous in their homelands. Earlier this year, the Seneca Nation, one of six groups that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy, celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, issuing a proclamation stating that “the Seneca Nation and the state of Israel share in common a passion for freedom and a willingness to fight for and defend our sovereignty and our shared right to be a free and independent people.”
The lacrosse tournament, which brings together 46 teams in the largest-ever such event, culminates this weekend. It may not elicit the rapturous fandom we saw last weekend in the World Cup. But we certainly have our sentimental favourites.