On the surface, On the Map plays like a fairly straightforward documentary about the rapid growth in the quality and popularity of Israeli basketball in the 1970s, culminating in the surprising victory by Maccabi Tel Aviv BC at the FIBA European Champions Cup in 1977. However, by paralleling the team’s improvement throughout the course of the decade with simultaneous political developments inside Israel and among the Jewish diaspora, Dani Menkin’s film uses basketball as a synecdoche for various complex developments occurring at the time within the Jewish world.
The interest of Israel’s most important political leaders, including Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, in the development and success of the Tel Aviv team revealed the intimate relationship between the nation’s cultural and political success. Menkin does a good job of providing the historical backdrop for the team’s victory. At the time, Israel was still reeling from the trauma of the 1972 Munich massacre and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In both cases, those responsible for the murder of Israelis were supported and funded by the Soviet Union, where being a Zionist was a crime and Jews that tried to openly practice their faith were often imprisoned. Furthermore, the Soviet Union concurrently spearheaded attempts to delegitimize Israel at the United Nations by trying to pass a series of anti-Zionist resolutions.
When the underdog Maccabi Tel Aviv beat CSKA Moscow in the tournament, the victory was more than merely an athletic one. It was a monumental psychological triumph for Jews the world over, providing emotional support for Jewish dissidents in the U.S.S.R. and legitimized Israel in the athletic sphere by providing it with its first major international championship. Menkin convincingly argues that the victory was in many ways as important to Israel and diasporic Jews as 1976’s Operation Entebbe, a hostage rescue mission carried out by the IDF against Palestinian and leftwing German terrorists that demonstrated that Israel was committed to defending Jews worldwide. Whereas that military success struck a blow at the U.S.S.R.’s anti-Zionist policies via their European and Arab proxies, Maccabi Elite’s victory showed that Israel could defeat the Soviet Union in the cultural arena as well.
The film isn’t merely a walk down memory lane, as it highlights how Israel continues to face similar hostility and boycotts as it did in the ’70s. Like the Arab nations that continue to refuse to allow their athletes to compete against Israelis at the Olympics and other international events, the U.S.S.R.’s autocratic government didn’t recognize Israel’s existence. Thus, the match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow had to be played on neutral territory in Belgium. Although the U.S.S.R. wanted to skip the game entirely, FIBA and Israel convinced the Soviet Union to participate, which in and of itself was a diplomatic breakthrough. By forcing the U.S.S.R. to recognize the Israeli team, the country itself was legitimized in the Soviet Union.
On the Map shows that athletics can sometimes have political ramifications that move beyond the arena, altering the shape of the world. Menkin shows that Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory over CSKA Moscow was as important as any military triumph by reminding the viewers that the latter was the Red Army’s team, while the players for the Tel Aviv team all served in the Israeli military, even the non-Jewish Americans who emigrated to Israel solely to play professional basketball. Perhaps the film’s most effective talking head is Bill Walton, who, though not a Jew, was a friend of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s captain, Tal Brody, Walton’s former teammate on the US Olympic team. Walton and Aulcie Perry, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s African-American center who later converted to Judaism, get just as emotional about the team’s triumph as Brody, a Jewish-American, and Maccabi’s coach, a Holocaust survivor. Their shared emotions capture how sports can sometimes bring wholly disparate people together to accomplish feats that change the destiny of an entire people.