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Documentary tackles American-style football in Israel

‘Touchdown Israel’

The documentary ‘Touchdown Israel’ looks at the American-style football league in Israel. 

In the U.S., organized football is off-limits for observant Jews. “ Friday night lights” mean high school football in Texas, but they’re Shabbat candles in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood. College football Saturday?  Forget about it. So watching men slam helmets over kippot and shoulder pads over tzitzit in “Touchdown Israel,” a spirited and entertaining film chronicling the history of the Israel Football League (IFL) by American documentarian, Paul Hirschberger, is a delightful surprise.

The first half of the film traces the IFL’s evolution from a backyard tackle football game organized by league founder, Ofri Becker, in 1999. At first, they played raucous pick-up games, free of pads, helmets or referees.  By 2007, it had become a four-team league with real equipment, zebra striped refs and an eight-game schedule. 

In 2008, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, donated Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, the league’s primary venue. The most recent IFL season featured 11 teams and over 600 players battling to earn a spot in a six team playoff that culminated in Israel Bowl VII. The Judean Rebels, a team of players from West Bank settlements, was crowned 2014-15 champion.

Suiting up in this league is a commitment.  Importing football equipment to Israel isn’t cheap. It costs about $800 for a uniform, helmet, shoes and a full set of pads. They need those pads, too. The IFL plays bruising, hard knock football with all the machismo you’d expect. In the film, players proudly display X-rays of broken bones as badges of honor, while wives and mothers cringe and wonder what’s gotten into their men. 

The make-up of the league reflects Israel’s population. “It’s an Israeli league, not a Jewish league,” explains Steve Leibowitz, one of the IFL’s founding members and President of American Football in Israel, the league with real equipment, zebra striped refs and an eight-game schedule. 

In 2008, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, donated Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, the league’s primary venue. The most recent IFL season featured 11 teams and over 600 players battling to earn a spot in a six team playoff that culminated in Israel Bowl VII. The Judean Rebels, a team of players from West Bank settlements, was crowned 2014-15 champion.

Suiting up in this league is a commitment.  Importing football equipment to Israel isn’t cheap. It costs about $800 for a uniform, helmet, shoes and a full set of pads. They need those pads, too. The IFL plays bruising, hard knock football with all the machismo you’d expect. In the film, players proudly display X-rays of broken bones as badges of honor, while wives and mothers cringe and wonder what’s gotten into their men. 

The make-up of the league reflects Israel’s population. “It’s an Israeli league, not a Jewish league,” explains Steve Leibowitz, one of the IFL’s founding members and President of American Football in Israel, the 

umbrella organization that operates the IFL and dozens of touch-football leagues as well. About 70 percent of the players are Jewish. The rest range in ethnicity from Muslim Arabs to Roni Srisurin, whose mother is a Filipino Catholic and whose father is a Thai Buddhist. 

Hirschberger uses this element to demonstrate and amplify the undercurrent of tension that is always present in Israeli society.  In fact, the best scenes in the film are not on the gridiron: They are discussions between Arab and Jewish teammates in which the men work through these issues.

In one, Saud Kassas, an Arab player, admits that the singing of “Hatikvah” before games offends him. The national anthem describes Israel as having a “…nefesh Yehudi, a Jewish soul,” he explains.  His right wing, Orthodox teammate, Jeremy Sable, is shocked, but you can see a light go on in his face. Later in the film Sable admits he’d had a stereotypically negative view of his Arab fellow countrymen and that his experience with teammates like Kassas had changed that. “The relationship you build with your teammates is a holy thing,” he avers. 

You don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy this fascinating glimpse of the complex cultural interplay at work in Israeli society.