Since the establishment of the State of Israel, sports have played an increasingly important role in the development of the country both at home and on the international stage. Despite its small population, Israel’s athletes, such as tennis star Shahar Pe’er and soccer player Yossi Benayoun, have achieved international recognition. Israeli sports teams have also found success abroad, most notably the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, which has consistently ranked among the best teams in Europe and won multiple championships. Israel’s national teams, especially in soccer and basketball have also been improving.
Outside of the professional arena, sports have always been a significant pastime for hundreds of thousands of Israelis. With miles of beautiful coastline on the country’s western border it’s no surprise that an estimated half of the population swim regularly. The many months of warm weather encourage Israelis to enjoy outdoor sports, and a competitive attitude ensures youngsters become involved in dozens of different sporting activities from a young age.
Soccer just edges basketball as the most popular sport in Israel. The professional soccer league, with 12 teams in the top Premier League division, is followed closely in the media and attracts crowds of up to 20,000 people at games. After half a decade at the top, Maccabi Haifa's era of unrivaled success appears to be waning, with Betar Jerusalem taking over, having won the league championship for the first time in nine years in May 2007.
Israeli clubs continue to improve in European competition. Over the past few years Maccabi Haifa has performed the best, reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2003 and 2010.
Israeli soccer players are having an increasing impact on the world stage, with 20 Israeli soccer players currently playing in top European clubs. In the summer of 2007, Israel captain Yossi Benayoun moved to Liverpool FC and defender Tal Ben Haim to Chelsea, while in January 2008, Tamir Cohen joined Bolton Wanderers. In November 2017, Israeli soccer star Eran Zahavi was named the Most Valuable Player in the Chinese Super League, after finishing the season as the league's top goal scorer. Before being recruited by the Guangzhou R&F club in 2015, Zahavi played for the Maccabi Tel Aviv team in Israel.
Israel participates in the Homeless World Cup, a soccer competition run by the Homeless World Cup Foundation. The organization hopes to alleviate homelessness worldwide by providing a social safety net and self-confidence to homeless individuals. Israel is one of 74 countries, including the United States, that participate in the Homeless World Cup, which draws an annual attendance of approximately 80,000 people.
In November 2017, FIFA, the international governing body of professional football, rejected a Palestinian Football Association request to take punitive action against Israeli soccer teams based in settlements beyond the Green Line. The Palestinian group argued that the Israeli teams violated FIFA rules forbidding teams from playing in another nation’s territory without permission. FIFA rejected the Palestinian arguments, based on the fact that there is no permanent, recognized border in the area.
Maccabi Tel Aviv are the kings of Israel, having won nearly every league championship in Israel. Maccabi has also won the Euroleague championship in 2014 and back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. Overall, Maccabi owns six Euroleague trophies. In 2009, former Maccabi player Omri Casspi made history as the first Israeli to play in the NBA, after he was drafted by the Sacramento Kings.
Hapoel Jerusalem has also had success in the European arena, competing in the ULEB Cup, a competition it won in 2005. In 2009, it again qualified for the Biannual EuroBasket championship, an event it has participated in since 1993.
Women’s basketball is popular in Israel, with two teams – Elitzur Ramle and Anda Ramat Hasharon – regularly battling for the league title. The two also compete in European competition. Shay Doron became the first Israeli to play professional basketball in America in 2007, playing for the New York Liberty in the WNBA.
The Basketball Without Borders program sponsored a camp in Israel featuring current and former NBA players and coaches during August 2017. Sixty of the top under-17 basketball players throughout Europe and the Middle East participated in the program and trained under the professional players. Additionally, Basketball Without Borders brought Israeli and Palestinian children together to play games and sponsored a new area for children at the Jerusalem YMCA. Basketball Without Borders has held camps in 26 countries since its founding in 2001, and this was the first time that Israel hosted a camp.
In recent years Israeli tennis players have become a fixture at the world’s biggest tournaments. Teenager Shahar Pe’er broke into the world's top 20 in 2006 and performs well at WTA-ranked tournaments around the world, including reaching the doubles finals of the Australian Open in 2008.
Doubles pair Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich have also established themselves as one of the best in the world, winning the 2008 Australian Open and staying in the world’s top 10 for years. Ram has also excelled in the mixed doubles competitions. In 2006, he won Wimbledon with Russian Vera Zvonerava and, in 2007, captured the French Open with his French partner Nathalie Dechy.
Israel also regularly participates in the Davis Cup competition. In 2009, the team reached the semifinal for the first time in its history.
An important factor in the success and development of Israeli sports is the Wingate Institute of Physical Education, the national sports center based in its own grounds close to the city of Netanya in central Israel. The institute includes an elite school for gifted young sports students, as well as the Department of Sports Medicine, a world leader in the field. The Council for Sporting Excellence, which determines which talented athletes will receive stipends to train full time, is also based at Wingate. Numerous successful Israeli athletes, including Pe'er, Ram, and Erlich, began their careers at Wingate.
The Sports Authority of the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sport sponsors the training of instructors and coaches at Wingate and oversees all sporting activity in Israel, coordinating the activities of the various sports federations and organizations and assisting in the development of programs.
A sporting culture developed from the early years of the state, with youngsters encouraged to become involved in sports from a young age to promote both fitness and healthy competitiveness. Each week, hundreds of thousands of young Israelis participate in sports ranging from soccer and basketball to kayaking, sailing, and rock climbing.
A number of major sports organizations run a network of clubs around the country as well as being affiliated to the major sports teams. The most well-known include Maccabi (established 1912), Hapoel (1923), Betar (1924), Elitzur (1939), and the Academic Sports Association – ASA (1953). Schools and community centers also run local leagues and competitions with the national school basketball and soccer finals broadcast on national television.
On any weekend visitors will see groups of people playing basketball on outside courts in parks around the country, going running in the streets, and playing soccer in the parks. The beaches provide a great opportunity for water sports. Israel has the highest per capita number of qualified scuba divers in the world, with 50,000 attracted by the unique marine life of the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Windsurfing and water skiing are also popular as well as Matkot, a locally developed beach game played by keeping a ball in the air by hitting it from paddle to paddle.
Away from the beaches, long-distance running is also high on the list of popular sports, with thousands participating in the annual marathon around Lake Kinneret in the North, beginning and ending in Tiberias. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv also have annual marathons. More than 35,000 runners from 72 different countries participated in the 2018 Jerusalem Marathon, the largest participation in the event's history.
In the winter, Mount Hermon in the North has become a beacon for local skiers. Other popular sports include cycling table tennis, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting, judo, karate, and a form of self-defense called Krav Maga, developed by the IDF. Popular team sports include volleyball and handball, which both have their own professional leagues in Israel.
Israel has always prided itself on its Olympic success, but until 2004 had never won a gold medal. That changed when windsurfer Gal Fridman beat the competition at the 2004 Athens Games. Arik Zeevi also won a medal at Athens, taking a bronze in the judo competition. In the 2008, Beijing Olympics Shahar Zubari won a bronze in men’s sailboard.
Other medal winners include Yael Arad and Oren Smadja (silver and bronze in judo in Barcelona, 1992) and Michael Kalganov (bronze in kayaking, Sydney, 2000). Pole vaulter Alex Averbukh never won an Olympic medal but won bronze and silver medals at the 1999 and 2001 World Athletics Championships, and the gold medal at the 2002 and 2006 European Athletic Championships.
Israel sent its largest delegation ever to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The team of 48 athletes competed in 16 events, including golf, mountain biking, and the triathlon for the first time.
Every four years Israel hosts its own version of the Olympics – the Maccabiah Games, which since 1932 has brought together thousands of Jewish athletes from all over the world. It is one of only seven worldwide competitions recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Participants compete in events such as soccer, basketball, table tennis, and netball and attend an impressive opening ceremony at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan. Many top Jewish athletes have made their names at the Maccabiah, including American swimmers Mark Spitz, who went on to win an unprecedented seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, and Lenny Krayzelburg, who won four gold medals in his career.
At the 2017 Maccabiah Games, a special 4 x 50 meter relay race was held between Israeli and American all-star teams, American Olympic champions Krayzelburg, Jason Lezak (four Olympic golds), and Anthony Ervin (three Olympic golds), with masters swimmer Alex Blavatnik defeated Israeli Olympians Guy Barnea, Yoav Bruck, Eran Groumi, and Tal Stricker.
English speaking immigrants have brought a number of sports to the country. The Israel Baseball League played professional baseball for a year in 2007. In 2017, the Israeli World Baseball Classic team began the Classic with four straight wins, including victories over powerhouses South Korea and Cuba. Although baseball is not widely played in Israel, the WBC team (composed mostly of American Jews) hopes to raise awareness about the sport in Israel.
Other sports popular among English speakers are cricket and American football. Israel is a member of the International Cricket Association (ICA). New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has promoted playing American football by building two stadiums in Jerusalem. There is an American flag football league includes dozens of teams competing for the Holy Land Bowl each season.
The Israel Lacrosse Association has grown exponentially since its inception in 2010, and now boasts an 8-city league with a budget of over $4.8 million. In 2016, the Israeli team earned a silver medal at the European Lacrosse Championships, and the team won first place in the 2017 European Indoor Lacrosse Championships. The Israel Lacrosse Association was chosen to host the World Lacrosse Championship in 2018 after Manchester, UK had to back out because of financial problems. The event was the largest in the championship’s fifty year history, with 46 teams vying for the title in Netanya.
Indian and South African immigrants brought rugby and lawn bowling to the country.
Israel has one professional cycling team, the Israel Cycling Academy. The first Olympic indoor cycling arena in the Middle East, dubbed the Sylvan Adams Velodrome, was unveiled near Israel’s National Sports Center in May 2018.
The largest cycling event in the world outside of the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, began in Israel in May 2018, the first time the race had ever been held outside of Europe. Participants spent three days cycling through Israel, beginning in Jerusalem and ending near Eilat and the Mitzpeh Ramon Crater. Following the Israeli leg of the race, the participants went on to Italy. Twenty-two teams from twenty countries participated, including teams representing Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Israel sent 42 athletes to the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, competing in archery, athletics, basketball, cycling, equestrian, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and tennis. The team came home with five silver medals and one bronze. Keren Leibowitz is Israel’s most celebrated Paralympic athlete, having won three gold medals in swimming competitions in Sydney in 2000, three World Championships, and five European Championships. Swimmer Inbal Pezaro, runner Moran Samuel and shooter Doron Shaziri won Israel three bronze medals at the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
The Israeli wheelchair tennis team came home with a silver medal in doubles from the BNP Paribas World Team Cup, held in Alghero, Italy in May 2017. The team had previously won the gold medal at the 2012 World Team Cup in South Korea, and the bronze medal at the 2014 competition in the Netherlands.
In October 2017, an Israeli team participated for the first time in the European Para Youth Games held in Liguria, Italy. The games included over 600 Paralympic teenage athletes from 24 European countries participating in eleven sporting events such as archery, bocce, soccer, judo, and table tennis. The Israeli team took home eight medals from their first trip to the European Para Youth Games: three gold, two silver, and three bronze.
The Israel Sports Association for the Disabled (ISAD) conducts a wide range of activities in many fields, including basketball, tennis, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, shooting, riding, archery, swimming, and sailing. The Sports Beit Halohem clubs for disabled army veterans and the Ilan organization for the disabled through injury and illness also offer numerous sporting activities.
Sources: Israel Foreign Ministry;
Olympic Committee of Israel;
The Homeless World Cup Foundation;
Israeli wheelchair tennis team clinches silver in World Team Cup, YNet News, (May 8, 2017);
NBA heads to the Holy Land to develop talent, promote values, YNet News, (August 13, 2017);
Abigail Klein Leichman.
3 golds, 2 silvers, 3 bronzes for Israeli Paralympic youth, Israel21C, (October 19, 2017);
Israeli Soccer Star Named China's Player of the Year, Times of Israel, (November 12, 2017);
Rebuffing Palestinians, FIFA says it’s ‘not a playground’ for politics, Times of Israel (November 15, 2017);
Putting pedal to the metal: In Israel, Giro d’Italia to bust out bikes big time, JNS, (May 3, 2018);
Tel Aviv building 1st Olympic velodrome in the Middle East, Israel21C, (May 2, 2018);
In Israel, Building a Lacrosse League From Scratch, New York Times, (June 30, 2018).