There is a certain tent a few feet from the border that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip and, if things have not changed very recently, at a table in the tent sits a young, blond-haired lieutenant named Jacob. Before him on the table lies one of the celebrated UZI submachine guns, an extremely light weapon developed and manufactured in Israel. In one corner of the tent, very likely, a young sergeant is calling the nearest command post on the radio to make a routine report.
In another corner of the tent there lies a soccer ball, and a little before sundown the lieutenant and the sergeant will take it outside and kick it around. Maybe (it has happened) a wild kick will send the ball across the border. But that won't be too serious. The Norwegian soldiers manning the outpost of the United Nations observer force a dozen yards away will obligingly kick it back.
The daily routine of Lieutenant Jacob and his sergeant reflects, in a way, how things go in Israel these days. Everyone is at his job, everyone is ever mindful of the potential dangers that lie dormant all along the 748-mile border of this Massachusetts-sized land of 2 million people, and everyone is eager to temper the work and the tension by playing or cheering the games of peacetime in the villages, the settlements, the cities, the kibbutzim, the schools and the universities.
There is time for sports now, and more and more symptoms of the sporting fever are beginning to appear. Hero worship, something that was unknown in the selfless dedication of the pioneering days, is spreading among the young people: Chodorov, the great soccer goalie, is mobbed by autograph seekers after the big games. Soccer referees are cordially hated by one side or the other and are as roundly denounced as baseball umpires used to be in Brooklyn. Outdoor basketball courts now dot the countryside, and many of the kibbutzim, the communal settlements, have swimming pools. The South Africans and the British have brought bowls and cricket to the country, and there are scores of minor sports nourishing, like handball and volleyball, tennis and softball, skin-diving and surfcasting along the Mediterranean. Israel's first golf course will be ready soon, and its first baseball diamond is planned for Wingate Institute for Physical Education outside Tel Aviv, the largest city. So avid is the population for news of sports that a sporting newspaper, started as a weekly, now is published three times a week.
One day, not long ago, I sat in the tent at the Gaza border and chatted across the table with Lieutenant Jacob. Visitors are rare at his lonely station and he was hungry for conversation. A sabra, a native of Israel, he spoke excellent English, and occasionally, as we talked, he would translate briefly for the sergeant in Hebrew, the ancient tongue that has been revived as the unifying language for the immigrants who have come to Israel from all parts of the world. The lieutenant wanted to know how I had happened to come all the way from New York, and he was eager to know what people I had met, what places I had visited, what impressions I had formed. So, lighting a cigarette, tilting my chair back from the table, I began to tell him.
Oddly Enough, I was now in Israel because I had previously been in Ireland. This is the way it happened: One day, an old friend named Milton Krents, a radio and television producer, called me for lunch in New York. He didn't say that he had anything special on his mind until we were having our coffee, and then he recalled that I had gone to Ireland with Ron Delany, the great miler, to report his hero's welcome after his victory in the Olympics.
"That is correct," I said, "and that Irish story led to another. Bernard McDonough of Parkersburg, W. Va., the shovel king, as he is known, called me and proposed a weekend visit to the Old Country with a view to saving it from economic disaster. There was some talk of starting a shovel factory over there. But that didn't work out. However, as a result of our weekend trip, Mr. McDonough contributed generously to the fund for Ireland's first cinder running track—and it was on that very track in Dublin that Herb Elliott of Australia set the new world's record."
Milton nodded. "I think," he said, "that some day you ought to go to Israel and see how things are going in sports over there."
"Do you mean," I asked, "that there is a connection?"
"Certainly," said Milton. " Ireland and Israel have a great deal in common. Both are small countries, both won their independence after a long struggle. Ireland is very sports-minded and Israel is beginning to be."