‘On the Map’
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‘On the Map’

Jubilant Israeli basketball players celebrate after their stunning 1977 upset of the Soviet Union team.
Jubilant Israeli basketball players celebrate after their stunning 1977 upset of the Soviet Union team.

Dani Menkin’s film “On the Map” opens tonight in New York.

It is not only a film about one of the great underdog dramas in sports, it also is the story of Israel’s quest for recognition as a nation among the nations.

Sixty-nine years ago last month, Jews around the world were anxiously waiting to hear the results of the vote on Resolution 181 at the United Nations in New York. It was a vote about partition of mandatory Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states. In the weeks before the vote, it appeared that there simply were not enough votes from the then 56 members in favor of partition. Lots of backroom maneuvering and arm twisting would ensue, but when the vote took place on November 29, the world body voted in favor of partition. When the British were about to leave the following May, there was sharp debate within the Jewish leadership about whether to declare a Jewish sovereign state, because support around the world seemed tepid.

In spite of this, David Ben-Gurion, who would become the new country’s first prime minister, proclaimed the existence of the State of Israel on May 14. He knew full well that many countries around the world were not prepared to accept the new nation into the world community.

Ben-Gurion defied outside efforts to delay declaration of the new state. He understood that there were many forces working against the recognition of Israel, just as there had been in the fall of 1947. The Soviet Union made clear that it would recognize Israel, but the United States appeared not inclined to do so. The CIA and the State Department boldly advised against creating a state, claiming that it was ill advised and making it fairly clear that creation of a state would be rebuffed here. Zionist leaders understood that getting American approval, and with that America’s friendship, was most important. They also knew that the task was a daunting one. We now know that at one point President Harry Truman was under such pressure from American Jewish and World Zionist leaders to extend United States recognition to the new state that he simply stopped seeing Jewish representatives. Finally, with some coercion from the president’s former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, Truman agreed to sit with Chaim Weizmann.

The result of that meeting would be a diplomatic coup, recognition of the State of Israel by the United States. Recognition from Israel’s neighbors and from countries around the world was and still remains a key issue for Israel.

So from the very beginning, Israelis understood that many nations around the world had no interest in recognizing a Jewish state. What did Israel try to do to change attitudes? They sent shlichim (emissaries) to Asia and Africa. Israeli doctors volunteered in far-off places. Israelis shared technology with third world countries. The idea was “If you get to know us, you will like us”!

a2-l-poster-on-the-map-largeAnd then there was sports!

Just five years after the Olympic tragedy in Munich, Israel fielded a basketball team that had every hope of making it to the finals at the 1977 European Cup, a competition typically dominated at the time by Spain and the U.S.S.R. But as the athletic event moved forward, the question about recognition arose again. The Russians, now 29 years after their enthusiastic endorsement of the new state, had broken relations with Israel, and so the Soviet team refused to play the Israelis. How could negotiations bring the teams together? If it succeeded, how would the Israelis fare against a much more seasoned Russian team?

It defied all logic that an Israeli team spearheaded by New Jersey-born Israeli new immigrant Tal Brody, joined by a broad mix of players of all religions and colors, could be so good that they could challenge the best in European basketball. But at that magic moment, Israel seemed ready.

Though the final Euro Cup would be played and won against Spain, it was Israel’s game against the U.S.S.R. that was the most historic. Refusing to allow the Israelis to play in Russia, the Soviets finally agreed to play on neutral ground in Belgium. Before the game, coach Ralph Klein, a Holocaust survivor, told his players, “We are fighting for our country as well as for the thousands of Jews who cannot immigrate to Israel because of Soviet policy. Let’s beat the Soviet bear.”

A lot seemed to be on the line that day, as David went into the arena to play against Goliath. Once again, David would win. On the court after the victory, an excited Tal Brody announced “Israel is ON THE MAP, not just in sport, but in everything.” It’s noteworthy that his words were not “we are the best,” but rather a statement that time was ripe for Israel’s recognition in all spheres.

This is but one of the fascinating stories that filmmaker Dani Menkin brings to the screen in his superb “On the Map.” It is a delightful feel-good film that includes interviews with Brody, several of the other players, NBA great Bill Walton, Ambassador Michael Oren and Natan Sharansky.

What is exceptional about Menkin’s film is that this is not just about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s quest for the win. It is about a deflated post-Yom Kippur War Israel that despite the heroic Entebbe rescue a year earlier was feeling pushed away by a world trying to ostracize it. On that basketball court, Brody, Aulcie Perry, Miki Berkovich, and their teammates were vying for recognition and acceptance.

The victory against the U.S.S.R. and later against Spain’s team, as Brody noted, succeeded in putting Israel “on the map.”

Eric Goldman teaches and lectures on cinema. He is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University and the founder of Ergo Media.

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