Stars of David
The astonishing story of Israel's first national team
Hear, O my brothers in the land of exile
The voice of one of our visionaries
Who declares that only with the very last Jew
Only there is the end of hope
"Tikvateinu" ("Our Hope"),
Naftali Herz Imber
Avraham Bendori skips up the stairs of his apartment, past the thousands of pennants and badges and medals that tell the story of his remarkable life, as if he were three decades younger than his 83 years.
"Memories," he says, pausing halfway up, in front of a bank of triangular, fading pieces of cloth embossed with the names and dates of bygone matches whose scores have long been forgotten: USSR, Ipswich, Internazionale, Watford. Dressed in a cap, bright shirt and slacks, he spins around and opens his arms wide, like a cross between Lionel Blair and Uncle June from The Sopranos. "Just memories! When I look, there are so many memories. I have to re-read every word, every single day, so I don't forget."
Life and memories. They're words that Bendori will use again and again over the next two hours. The former Israel international hadn't played in all the matches, of course. But for 20 years, long after his playing career as a goalkeeper for Maccabi Tel Aviv had ended, he had been the national team manager. There is a portrait of Bendori with the first team before his final match in 1999, looking little different from the man standing in front of the frame today.
Over those 20 years Bendori wandered with the Israel national side from continental association to continental association looking for a home, after an Arab boycott in the 1970s meant that Israel were banished from the Asian Football Confederation. By 1994 they had joined Uefa, and settled into a reassuringly mundane reality of failure as European Championships and World Cup finals passed them by. Fittingly, the picture also celebrated Israel's high watermark: a play-off against Denmark for a place at Euro 2000. They lost 8-0 on aggregate.
"When I was the team manager it was between the times when we knew who was a friend and who wasn't a friend," he explained. "We ourselves didn't know when we went to a country how the situation was with us. We were a new country and not every country wants a new country."
But there's one memory not on his wall, a memory Avraham has kept to himself. There's no pennant, no letter of thanks, no badge, not even a picture to commemorate his role in arguably the most important match he ever played, probably the most important match in his country's history. Fifa doesn't even recognise it as an official international. But when Israel played the USA in New York in September 1948, just four months after the state was born, it was the first time an Israeli team, any sports team, had flown the Star of David abroad.
When Israel proclaimed statehood in May 1948, conflict was inevitable. The Arab countries that encircled it declared war, while the cities and towns that had seen Arab and Jew living in relative peace during the years of the British Mandate tore themselves to partition. But as war raged, the Israelis decided that their plight needed to be heard through unconventional means. From Israel's armed forces, a team of footballers was convened, under the watchful eye of the country's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. Many of the players had been injured in the War of Independence. Some had only recently recovered from appalling injuries. Others had fought with the British Army's Jewish Brigade against the Nazis. And others had fought in underground groups against the British when they still represented an occupying force. The 18 soldiers chosen from the best Jewish football clubs in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Petah Tikva had new orders from the very top. They would go and play in the USA, and would fly the new flag of Israel to show the world — and the Jews it hoped to attract to move to the fledgling state — its strength and independence.
Bendori has lived in Tel Aviv all his life, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants who came to British Palestine in 1926, a few months after his birth. "My father was friends with Ben Gurion before he was Prime Minister, so bought the land here to be close by. Because, for him, Ben Gurion was king," recalled Bendori, now standing on the roof terrace of the apartment his father built near the Mediterranean coast, the white city shimmering behind him. Used tank shells, holding water for his collection of tropical plants, stood by the door. He points down to Ben Gurion Street, to where the former Prime Minister used to live.
His early memories of Tel Aviv are of peace and relative coexistence, of Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, living in the same apartment blocks. But as the prospect of independence started to become a reality, attacks and counter attacks took place against both communities. Bendori was too young to join the army, so he joined a local militia. "I was 17, maybe 18, and I started also to work around the area to keep the Jewish people here safe. And we had a small war."
As soon as he was old enough he joined the Israeli Army, while continuing to keep goal for Maccabi Tel Aviv. He nearly died during the War of Independence when he was ambushed near an Arab village. "They threw a grenade into the back of my Jeep," he said. The blast killed two of his friends, sheering the Jeep in half. But the engine kept running, and he managed to escape with the front half of the Jeep scraping against the ground. "If the engine had been in the back," he said, "I'd be dead."
He was the lucky one. Ten players from Maccabi Tel Aviv alone perished in the conflict. It was while recuperating in hospital that Bendori got the call. An Israel national team was to be put together in response to an invitation from the United Jewish Appeal and Zionist Organisation of America. An army training camp was set up to find the best players Israel had to offer, but Bendori was drafted into the squad straight from hospital. The team was summoned to Ben Gurion's house. "He told us, 'You are going to America, and you are going to show the Americans who the Israelis are.'"
But Bendori had a problem. Bendori hadn't always been Bendori. He was born Avraham Bendersky, a product of his father's Polish roots. It was too European for Ben Gurion, who ordered Bendersky, and the rest of squad, to change their names. "He said, 'You are not going to the United States with a Polish name! You are going with a Hebrew name.' So he changed it himself!" The name meant 'the son of a generation', but Ben Gurion's actions were too much for Bendori's family, even if his father revered him. "It was terrible for me. My parents didn't want to talk to me!"
The Associated Press, 19 September 1948
Israel Team Flying Here to Start on Soccer Tournament
Haifa: A selected group of Israeli soccer stars left by plane this morning bound for the United States. The Israel team will play in the United States with the first scheduled match on Sunday, Sept. 26, in New York. The visitors will oppose the United States Olympic team in the Polo Grounds that day.
The eighteen players, chosen from Israel soccer clubs, are all Israeli Army soldiers. They underwent intensive training in a special camp last month. Heading the party is coach J Pollak [sic], the former star player on the famous European team Hakoah of Vienna.
It was the first time that Avraham Bendori had left his homeland. But the other players in the squad were battle-hardened, each with their own unique story of survival. There was Beitar Tel Aviv's Hungarian-born centre-back Israel Weiss, who survived the Second World War after volunteering to fight the Nazis in the British Army's so-called Jewish Division, set up by Winston Churchill in 1944; Yosef Mirmovich, the Maccabi Tel Aviv winger who was born in Cyprus but volunteered for the Australian army. And then there was the team's captain, a beast of a man called Shmulik Ben-Dror. He too joined the British Army, rising to officer. "He was a very, very hard man," recalled Asher Goldberg, a former journalist who now works at the Israeli Football Association archives. "He was seriously injured [during the Second World War] and spent a long time in hospital in Italy. His body was full of shrapnel. They were taking pieces of shrapnel out of him for the rest of his life."
The biggest star of the tour to the US wasn't on the pitch, though. The coach Egon Pollak was the only member of the delegation who had visited the United States before, when he was a star player of the famous Austrian team Hakoah Vienna. Hakoah was a club formed by Austrian Zionists at the turn of the 20th century and had a resolutely Jewish identity, attracting Jewish fans from across the world. Like a Jewish Harlem Globetrotters, they embarked on tours to play for the Diaspora, in England — where they beat West Ham 5-0, France and finally, after winning the Austrian league in 1925, to the USA. They attracted huge crowds and, with players like Béla Guttman (who would later win the European Cup twice as a coach with Benfica) they would often win, too. Wherever they played, huge crowds followed, the biggest being at New York's Polo Grounds where 45,000 people crammed in to see Hakoah play. As a publicity exercise, the tour was a resounding success, reaching out to Jewish communities across the world with the team's "Muscular Judaism" — a phrase coined by Max Nordau, the co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation with Theodore Herzel — to encourage Jewish teams to fight racial stereotypes by showing strength and discipline in sport.
It also effectively destroyed the team. "Do you know what they called this tour? El Dorado. The City of Gold!" said Goldberg. Such was the outpouring of affection in the US, and such was the absence of anti-Semitism, that most of the players decided to stay. "Seven players signed for Brooklyn alone. Only three players ever returned to Vienna."
By the 1930s Hakoah were a shadow of their former selves, languishing in the third division. Then the Nazis came for them. "They were a little Hakoah then, but the Nazis took the club, and killed four of the players," said Goldberg.
Pollak had stayed in the US too, for just one season at the New York Giants. But as coach of Israel's very first national team, there was no chance of anyone being left behind. "When we left the country [for the US], Ben Gurion asked the players, 'Do me a favour. Play the game. But don't forget you are Israeli. Every one of you. When you are on the pitch, everyone should know you are Israeli,'" recalled Bendori. "'And I want to see every one of you when you get back!' We didn't dare go against him."
Much has been written in Israel about the use of sport by politicians and political groups both before and after 1948. Sport, and especially football, had become increasingly important in the Yishuv — the name given to the Jewish settlement in pre-1948 Palestine — in building a national consciousness while also appealing to the Diaspora either to provide financial support or commit to making aliyah, the Jew's return to the land of Israel.
"By the second half of the 1920s, sport became a means of national representation for the Jewish society," wrote Yair Galili and Haggai Harif in "Sports and Politics in Palestine 1918-1948" in the journal Soccer and Society. "The aspiration of breaking out of the framework of the Palestinian Mandate, while at the same time continually striving to advertise the achievement of the Jewish nation and home... and to stress its ties to Diaspora Jewry, aroused the enthusiasm of local sportsmen to compete with their colleagues in the Middle East and Europe."
There is, of course, the other side of the story. As the Palestinian writer Issam Khalidi pointed out in an article for the Electronic Intifada, the history of Jewish sport and its use in promoting Zionism during the British Mandate has all but wiped Palestine's Arab identity from sports history. "Efforts to dominate athletics, marginalise the Arabs and cultivate cooperation with the British at any price were the main traits that characterised Zionist involvement in sports," he wrote. The principle exammple was the status of the Palestine national team, recognised by Fifa until 1948, but which had a resolutely Jewish and British identity. In the handful of official games it played, qualifiers for the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, not one Arab player was represented, even though it was meant to be a team that represented all of Palestine — British, Arab and Jew. "Although the Zionist movement attempted to claim that sports were separate from politics, it proved to be yet another arena for Zionist colonisation," said Khalidi. "Then and now, sports in Palestine cannot be isolated from politics." It would take more than 60 years for an 'Arab' Palestinian team to play an officially recognised international football match: a 1-1 draw with Thailand in an Olympic qualifier in April 2011.
Both sides would agree on the political power that sport wields in moulding the identity of new states. Tours by Jewish teams in Europe and beyond — like Hakoah's trip to the US — energised the local Jewish populations, a fact that intrigued politicians looking to secure Israel's place on the world stage in early 1948. In his recent book Zionism of Muscles, a look at how sport was used in Israeli foreign policy, Haggai Harif wrote of how Israel's tour of the USA in 1948 — the first by any Israeli sports team — was seen as hugely important propaganda tool.
"The visit of the Israel football team," he wrote, "realised the use of sports as a tool influencing the huge populations in other states... It was emphasised that politically and diplomatically this game will symbolise the unity, ability and existence of the young state in every field. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moshe Sharett, blessed the team before they left. This mission is to strengthen... the feeling of the Jews in America and their identification with the main goal of defending the state of Israel. You, the people of this team, must emphasise the Jewish strength, the Jewish unity and the brave bond between us in Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora."
Sharett, who would later become Israel's second Prime Minister, was unswerving in his belief that the tour would be a success beyond sport, providing his nascent country with a valuable publicity coup. "Our best men, who we have sent abroad, will tell [the USA] unequivocally the story of the War of Independence," he said.
New York Times, 23 September 1948
Mayor Welcomes Team from Israel
Forty cars with streamers bearing the legend, "Welcome Heroes of Israel," and carrying the squad of visiting soccer players from the new State of Israel... bore down upon City Hall yesterday after a tour of Manhattan. Representatives of leading Jewish organizations accompanied them. Then, in the presence of a huge noon-day gathering, they dispersed. Ten of the cars returned at 2 o'clock for a brief reception by Mayor O'Dwyer on City Hall steps.
Photographers and newsreel men promptly took over and kept the mayor busy shaking hands with Capt. Samuel Ben-Dror of the Israel Army, who was severely wounded in the battle for Latrun.
"It is always a pleasure for me to meet great men of your calibre who have done their full duty on behalf of their country and I am sure that the people of New York City will extend to you all the warm welcome which you deserve," said the Mayor. "You will be made to feel at home and our best wishes are with you."
Just a few blocks away from Bendori's apartment, Eliezer Spiegel sits in his lounge with his wife and grandson. Despite being considered a legend in Israeli football there are few clues of Spiegel's long career in the game, either as a star striker for Beitar Tel Aviv and Maccabi Petah Tikva or later as a coach. Instead pictures of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren adorn his shelves.
Spiegel was 24 when he travelled to the USA with Israel's first national football team, and had fought a very different war to the war Avraham Bendori was involved in. "My wife's brothers were all members. They recruited me," Spiegel says. "I was an expert with pistols. Small pistols."
While many of his future teammates chose to join the British Army to fight a common enemy in Nazism, Spiegel joined the Irgun, a militant Zionist underground armed movement that assassinated British officials and bombed British targets. In 1946 they were responsible for bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the nerve centre of British rule, killing 91 people. Irgun members, who saw the British as occupiers, were deemed so dangerous that in 1945 the British began rounding up members. Spiegel was arrested, but rather than being sent to a local prison, he was sent to a camp in Eritrea. It was hoped that they were so far away they wouldn't be able to escape and return.
"We used to play football in the camp, against a team of the British," Spiegel recalls. "I used to play very well. One of the soldiers, a captain, said he could arrange for me to go to England and play there."
It was a way out of exile, but for Spiegel it was replacing one exile with another. "I told him I wouldn't go," he said. "They wanted us to be far away. I had to return [to Israel] first."
Instead Spiegel was imprisoned in Eritrea for three years, only being allowed home after Israeli independence had been declared. His first act of service was to go to the USA.
It had rained non-stop all weekend, but 26 September 1948 was still a beautiful day. The teams lined up in front of either 25,000 (according to the New York Times) or 35,000 (according to the Israeli FA) overwhelmingly Jewish fans at the Polo Grounds. "My English wasn't too good then," remembers Bendori. "But I remember everyone was with Israel, shouting 'Is-ra-el, Is-ra-el!' Everyone wanted us to stay because of the war."
The Israel team wore blue bomber jackets, a gift from their American hosts when they landed. The team lined up to watch their new flag hoisted for the first time and hear their national anthem, the Hatikvah — an adapted version of "Tikvateinu" by Naftali Herz Imber, a Jewish poet from what is now Ukraine. It invoked pride, as well as painful memories.
"I asked all the players what they felt," says Bendori. "I saw their eyes, and they were crying. They didn't know how this Israel music would make them feel. It was difficult."
Spiegel, too, still remembers the powerful emotions that Israel's first sporting national anthem on foreign soil provoked. "This is the only thing we were satisfied with the match," he said. "When we were hearing it, we took it very hard. It felt like we had a country, and to be in America to sing it.... There were many people crying. I am a strong man but I was crying too."
New York Times, 27 September 1948
US Olympic Squad Turns Back Israeli Soccer Team on Opening of Tour Here
American Eleven Gains 3-1 Triumph
It was a more nimble-footed United States Olympic team that spoiled the debut in this country of the soccer team of Israel, first international athletic group to represent the new state.
While the Israelis pressed the Americans to the utmost in the second half and missed more than a few opportunities, the Olympic eleven made its shots count. The US booters broke through twice in the first half and once in the second to carry away a 3-1 decision before 25,000.
Perhaps it was the fact that the Israelis had only one opportunity to engage in a real workout since reaching this country. They were not outplayed too greatly. And certainly their passing was a shade better than that of the Americans.
Impressive ceremonies preceded the start of the game. Headed by the New York Police Department Band, the Police Department Glee Club and a Jewish War Veteran's color guard, the members of the Israel team and then the United States Olympic eleven paraded around the flags of both nations and the singing of the national anthems.
Egon Pollak's dark mood soon destroyed the dressing room bonhomie fostered by seeing the Israeli flag for the first time. "We didn't play too good," Spiegel explained. "It was cold, raining, we don't have this climate. It was hot for us [in Israel]. It was very cold in America and for us it was very difficult. He [Pollak] told us that we played like girls. We are afraid all the time. Why didn't we fight? He was very angry. Very angry because we lost. Because for him coming to America was something special because he was from Vienna and had played here before."
The one bright spot was Israel's captain scoring his country's first goal. Spiegel provided the assist. The tour didn't get much better. Israel lost all its games in New York and Philadelphia, and matches against an All-Star American league team. But the results, for once, didn't matter.
"As far as sport is concerned it was a failure," said Haggai Harif. "But as a means of propaganda it was successful. In the Israeli newspapers they wrote it was such a great experience for the Jews of New York and Philadelphia to see Israel, this young and unknown state. The gathering of the Jews... in the streets waving for the players of the Israeli team was such an extraordinary propaganda tool for the Zionist groups in America. It strengthened the Zionist passion for the state of Israel and led them to contribute and even make aliyah."
As Ben Gurion had hoped, every player returned to Israel. There was a new country to build. The players returned to Haifa to a hero's welcome, but their rest was short-lived. All of them returned to their Army units. There were still three months of war to fight, but they didn't know that then. Slowly the years would pass. Children would be born, parents would die, wives passed and second wives would take their place. One by one, the team of 1948 would get smaller and smaller. Now only three remain: the winger Yosef Mirmovich, Bendori and Spiegel, who had to find a new Army unit to join after years of exile in Eritrea. "They didn't give me anything dangerous to do," he admitted. "They just wanted me to play [football]."
After the war, Spiegel would realise the dream that been offered to him by a British army captain in Eritrea. In 1954 Maccabi Tel Aviv travelled to England for a friendly against Wolverhampton Wanderers. They lost 10-0. "I touched the ball 10 times," Spiegel said. "The 10 times we kicked off."
It was while in England he had a chance encounter with a ghost from the past. "The newspaper had printed which hotel we were staying in," he said. "I was waiting outside and I saw this man in full military uniform coming towards me. I thought, 'That's it, the British have found me. I'm to be arrested!' It was the colonel from Eritrea. Retired now. He had read in the paper I was here!"
What did he say? "He was sorry for Africa, and happy I got to England eventually. He was bored now. He said he drank cups of coffee all day."
Spiegel would go on to have a long and happy relationship with England, visiting Lilleshall when he decided to become a coach and was hired as the assistant manager to the national team. He counted Walter Winterbottom as a friend, and met the Charlton brothers. A letter stands on his bookshelf, from the then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to mark Israel's 60th anniversary in 2008, extolling his "extraordinary life" and recognising his role in creation of Israel, both on and off the pitch. He also thanked him for not leaving the camp to play in England when he had the chance. His son, Giora Spiegel, would go on to enjoy the playing career his father never did, being part of the great Israel team that, along with Mordechai Spiegler, qualified for Israel's one and only World Cup appearance at Mexico '70.
Progress to that World Cup began on 26 September 1948, with a squad of soldiers fresh from war and exile. "The match was significant. It was the first because everything was new in the country," says Bendori, now in his kitchen. His son, who was briefly a Maccabi Tel Aviv youth player 20 years ago, has arrived to ensure he takes his medication, as he has done every day since Avraham's wife died suddenly two years ago. He hands him a glass of thick green gunk to drink.
Life in the end catches up with everybody, even sportsmen, even those sportsmen whose actions reverberate far beyond sport. "The football team would bring Jewish people to Israel," says Bendori senior. "It was propaganda, yes — there was no other kind of business."