Root for the home team? Uruguayan Jews see dilemma in World Cup semifinal vs. Israel

BUENOS AIRES (JTA) – Over the past two weeks, Israel’s soccer team has thrilled South American Jews with a historic run at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina.

Thousands of locals, shown with Israeli flags, watched the under-20 team, in their first appearance at the tournament, repeatedly come from behind to defeat higher ranked nations such as Japan and Brazil.

But in Thursday’s semifinal match, Israel is set to take on Uruguay – leaving many Uruguayan-Jewish fans at home and around the world with a difficult decision.

“I can’t choose. It’s the most difficult question of my life,” said Gustavo Ram, a Uruguayan living in Israel who is the brother of former professional Uruguayan-Israeli tennis player Andy Ram. “I don’t know how I will react. I have Israeli kids so I don’t want to shout for Uruguayan goals in front of them.

The die-hard football fan married an Israeli after immigrating 30 years ago.

“I have very strong roots in both countries, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard, really hard.”

A fan wears an Israeli flag during the match between Israel and Senegal at the FIFA U-20 World Cup on May 24, 2023 in La Plata, Argentina. (Juan Melamed via JTA)

Strong pro-Israel sentiment is common in Latin America’s large Jewish communities, in countries such as Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Jewish schools are strongly Zionist and many offer programs for students to travel and study in Israel.

Many of these communities also develop a strong love for sports. The main centers of Jewish communal life in these countries are often local sports clubs, which double as community centers and spaces named after Israeli politicians.

But Javier Jakubowski, executive director of the Hebraica Maccabi club in Montevideo, said Uruguayans are also “very proud and nationalistic”.

He added, “It is also true that with Israel it is a different feeling, different from being in front of any other country.” “But we always want Uruguay to win.”

Uruguayan businessman and swimmer Daniel Backovicius, who represented his country at last year’s Maccabiah Games in Israel, said a win would mean more for Israel, which has appeared in only one other World Cup: the tournament’s normal edition. Since 1970, Uruguay has always been one of the world’s best in football, twice as runner-up in the Under-20 World Cup and twice winning the general World Cup, but not since 1950.

“To be honest, the truth is that I want Uruguay to win. On the other hand, I understand that reaching the final in a global football championship would be unique for Israel. Uruguay already has more experience, more in football The victory… for Israel is more special,” Bakovicius said.

Juan de los Santos of Uruguay heads the ball as Jack McGlynn of the United States celebrates during their FIFA U-20 World Cup quarter-final football match at Madre de Ciudades Stadium in Santiago del Estero, Argentina, Sunday, June 4, 2023. appear during (AP Photo/Nicholas Aguilera)

The team’s dramatic success has inspired fans back home, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has learned that Culture Minister Mickey Zohar will attend Thursday’s game in La Plata. Several other Israeli fans are also visiting, including former Israeli soccer star Haim Revivo, whose son Roy is on the country’s under-20 team.

Aviner Fischhof, Israel’s consul in Uruguay, had a diplomatic answer to the question of who would win.

“We are very excited, the Israeli team has gone so far in this tournament. I am sure we will have a very good game,” he said. “May the best team win.”

Jana Berris, an Uruguayan-born journalist who now lives in Modi’in, Israel, was similarly diplomatic: she said she wanted a draw, which is impossible at this stage of the tournament.

Israel’s player appeals to Juan Gabriel Calderon Perez of Costa Rica for a handball inside Brazil’s penalty area during their FIFA U-20 World Cup quarter-final football match in San Juan, Argentina, Saturday, June 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

“What I want most is to see each team singing the anthem… both, together, on the pitch! What more could we ask?” he wrote on his website, Seminario Hebreo Jai. He titled the piece “The Emotion of Seeing the Two Light Blues” – a reference to the fact that both teams wear jerseys of the same color, Light blue and white in colour.

There are about 15,000 Jews in Uruguay, according to the Latin American Jewish Congress, out of a total population of 3.4 million. It was the first South American country to officially recognize the State of Israel and the first Israeli embassy in Latin America, established in 1948.

Thursday will ignite a party atmosphere in Jewish communities in Uruguay and neighboring countries. But many Uruguayan Jews are also traveling from Montevideo to the game, including Robbie Schindler, president of the Central Jewish Institute of Uruguay (Comite Central Israelita de Uruguay).

“It’s not just a football match, it’s a party. I hope it brings people together and not separates them,” Schindler said.

But he added: “I want Uruguay to become world champion, and I also want Israel to finish third.”

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