The Baptist Village of Israel lies about an hour northeast of Jerusalem. The grounds are reminiscent of a peaceful summer camp. Orange trees surround cabins and dorms and picnic tables. There's even an olive tree. In just a few weeks, on the Baptist Village football field, the very first Israeli national team will face Maranatha Baptist Bible College of Wisconsin in a game of American football.
We're not used to hearing much happy news from the Israel in America. We hear about the mounting tension with Iran and its nuclear program. We hear about bombings, rocket fire and missiles. We don't hear much about sports, about friends getting together at the end of the week to learn, laugh or let off steam with a few vicious tackles on a football field.
That's why David Hartstein, an Austin, Texas-based documentary filmmaker, had to make the trip to Israel in March 2011 when he heard about the growing Israeli Football League. Every news story he read or heard about Israel was usually something bad. But football? This stood out. Now Hartstein has hours of unedited film of hundreds of stories from the men who started from scratch to build a culture of American football in the tiny State of Israel. As of now, it's called "Untitled Israel Football Project."
"One the one hand, you could say, 'It's just football, who cares?' But there's a lot more going on,” Hartstein says. You've got missiles flying overhead ... and this is a great outlet for them.”
Not only will the May 17 game against Maranatha be the first official game for the newly formed national team, formed of the best players from the 10 teams in the Israeli Football League, it will be the first time the Israelis have played 11 on 11 (they're used to playing 8-on-8) on a full-size field. They're hoping the international matchup draws a little more attention to the slowly growing emergence of the game. Only seven years ago, they were playing without pads.
In 2005, 14 men got together for a pickup game, not knowing that they were planting the seeds of the IFL. More players joined every year. They were surgeons and engineers, students and garbage men, lawyers and soldiers. They were Israelis, Americans and even Palestinians. Although Israel has had touch and flag football teams since 1989, soccer reigns supreme and many had never touched a football.
By 2007, they had some protective gear, in large part thanks to New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a steadfast supporter of Israel and now, the financier behind the IFL. The football stadium in Jerusalem's Saker Park is named for the Kraft family. The Patriots logo is painted in the grass.
"We love the game of football, we love the state of Israel," Kraft tells Hartstein in one scene of the film. "So merging special things in our lives has always been what we’re about. Our family has tried to build bridges in anything we do and I think the game of football is one of the best building of bridges for a community that I've ever seen."
Israel Bowl I was held in 2008. The media had begun to take notice, especially when they caught wind of the camaraderie between Israeli and Palestinian players. Of course, there’s no denying the gravity of how a sport of any kind can cause people to ignore one of the most significant social, political and religious conflicts of the last 100 years. It’s part of what makes sports so great.