“Israel Swings for Gold” plays at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Feb. 11.

In 2021, protestors gathered outside a park in the northeastern United States where the Israeli baseball team was playing in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. 

The team – who was coming into its first Olympics as an underdog – was met with anti-Zionist protests at many junctures on its journey to Tokyo, as seen in the documentary “Israel Swings for Gold,” which will play at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Outside the stadium, one protestor shared his thoughts with the filmmakers. 

“This movement of Zionism that this team is representing is a true embarrassment to our people, to the Jewish people, and it’s a desecration of our religion,” said Rabbi Dovid Feldman. “This occupation of Palestine, and of an entire indigenous people that live there, is forbidden according to Judaism. We are forbidden to kill, and they oppress an entire people.” 

The players on the Olympic team were not unaware of the controversy surrounding them. How could they be, with protesters at games, or with other countries’ athletes refusing to engage in pin trading, a sacred Olympics tradition, with Israeli team members? But many of the team’s players were Americans who had obtained Israeli citizenship, and so the question remains: how many of them had a solid understanding of Israeli history, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and why people might feel motivated to protest a baseball game? 

“Players that are new to Israeli politics were interested to know, why is this happening? We use it as an opportunity to create a real dialogue within the team.” said pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, one of the players who was born in Israel, in the documentary. “That’s what you get when you put a group of Jews in one bus. You start talking about stuff that’s maybe beyond the normal dialogue on a baseball team.” 

While “Israel Swings for Gold” offers an interesting look on the country’s attempt to make baseball more mainstream in a place where it has historically been unpopular, it doesn’t spend too much time interrogating what exactly that dialogue that Lipetz mentioned looks like. In a little over an hour, audiences are given a first-hand experience of what it entails to be an Israeli athlete at the Olympics. But unfortunately, the film only glosses over the most interesting aspect of that equation – the conversations that happen on the path to citizenship. 

The film is a combination of footage taken from inside Olympic Village in 2021 (outside media was not allowed, so these are videos the players took themselves) and interviews compiled after the fact reminiscing on the experience of “the Jamaican bobsled team of baseball.” Going into the Olympics, Israel was ranked #24 in the world. The next lowest ranked team that qualified was the Dominican Republic at #7. This is a true underdog story, one that began in 2018’s “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” which serves as a prequel for this new documentary. 

The most interesting parts of “Israel Swings for Gold” deal with the players’ experiences as Israeli team members, particularly in relation to the Munich Olympics massacre. During the 1972 games, 11 Israeli athletes were killed by a Palestinian militant organization, Black September. The documentary places a lot of emphasis on the extra security measures afforded to the Israeli team, as well as the fact that the Tokyo Olympics was the first time since 1972 that the team hung an Israeli flag outside their building, therefore marking where they would be staying. 

The documentary also lends a significant amount of its runtime to a minor TikTok scandal the team found itself embroiled in during the games. Throughout the Olympics that year, a number of athletes took it upon themselves to test out the durability of the now famous Tokyo cardboard beds in humorous ways. When the Israeli baseball team joined in on the fun – testing out how many Israelis it takes to break a cardboard bed – there was some backlash.

The TikTok section of the documentary is probably the most fascinating. The team member who posted the video, Ben Wanger, said he did not expect this type of response. In his defense, the video is fairly inoffensive. But this moment tugs at the strings of a conversation the documentary never fully enters, harkening back to Lipetz’s comment about educating players new to the country about its history. Wanger is one of many Jewish Americans on the team who obtained Israeli citizenship to play. He could be one of the players Lipetz was referring to. But the film only touches on the broad strokes of those conversations, never letting us see how they might play out. 

In one interview, General Manager Peter Kurz makes a comment that while the government hasn’t gone in the direction he would’ve hoped, he still believes in Israel. But just as the film offers us that small nugget of information, it moves on, not taking the time to explore complex feelings of national identity.  There’s a short scene where we see players going through the citizenship process, and some commentary from a few players on why they chose this path, or what reservations they had. But those moments are gone in a flash, and never run deeper than a couple of sentences. We’re told this team had conversations about Israel’s complicated history and its place in the world. But if we’re never shown, we’ll just have to take the documentary’s word for it. There’s a great underdog story present in “Israel Swings for Gold,” and the film lends more than enough time to that Cinderella tale. But that part of the story is often undermined by how much we’re left thinking about what’s going on off screen. 

“Israel Swings for Gold” is directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller, and Jeremy Newberger. It will have its world premiere at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Feb. 11. Tickets can be purchased online

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.