Avidgor Liberman, Israel's new defense minister, has engendered some controversy because of his hardline views. Another criticism, however, has been that he lacks the impressive military experience shared by most of his predecessors in the post. Liberman did indeed serve in the IDF, but only reached the lowly rank of corporal.
His undistinguished military service has prompted the quip circulating in the papers these days that the closest Liberman has come to a projectile whizzing by his head has been on the tennis court.
This is not the first time that Liberman's well-known love for tennis has been an issue in his political career. In 2015, The Jerusalem Post ran a piece about a Facebook video showing Liberman, a sitting member of the Knesset, playing tennis in the midst of a work day. The piece, entitled "Life is boring in the opposition," linked Liberman's midday court visit to wider public frustration over parliamentary inactivity. The article also noted that Liberman was a regular player who appeared at the Israel Tennis Center at least once a week.
Liberman is only the most recent Israeli politician to have an affinity for the sport of kings. In fact, tennis has been important in Israel since the state's creation, and even beforehand. In 1946, in the midst of the Jewish quest for independence, Jewish groups were engaged in a regular and deadly battle of wits against the British security forces. One of the most skillful British operatives was Sergeant Thomas Martin, who had a particular gift for seeing through the disguises of Lehi, or Stern Gang, fighters.
In fact, Martin had been able to recognize and arrest Lehi leader and future prime minister Yitzhak Shamir via his bushy eyebrows, despite the fact that Shamir was wearing rabbinical garb at the time. Two months after this incident, in August of 1946, two Lehi assassins dressed as tennis players shot and killed Martin as he played tennis on a court in Haifa.
Once the state was established, it is unsurprising that the state's earliest European-suit-wearing leaders were not big tennis players. That said, state founder and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion was supportive of efforts to expand Israel's meager tennis facilities. The tennis-playing philanthropist Hart Hasten records in his autobiography that the American businessman Joe Shane once came to Ben-Gurion and asked for land on which he and other tennis- loving Americans could build tennis courts for Israeli youth. Ben Gurion liked the idea, saying, "That sounds like a good idea, Mr. Shane, but in order to acquire the land, you must confer with the minister of culture, who handles everything related to sports."
Shane went to the minister – unfortunately not identified by name in Hasten's account – and repeated his request. The minister acceded to the request, telling Shane, "Yes, that all seems good and fine, Mr. Shane. I'll be happy to work with you, and you may count on my full cooperation."
Just before Shane left, though, the minister called him back, saying, "Oh, there's just one more thing, Mr. Shane.
Could you tell me please, vos is Tennis?" (Yiddish for "what is tennis?") As the state grew wealthier and more secure, tennis became a more established part of Israeli culture. It became particularly popular in the Israeli military, especially among Israeli generals. Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and David "Dado" Elazar – IDF chief of staff during the Yom Kippur War – were all tennis players. Elazar even died in the saddle so to speak, while playing tennis in 1977. Like Liberman today, Sharon was himself subjected to a withering quip by a political opponent about his tennis playing. In 1994, Benny Begin dismissively predicted that Sharon was as likely to become Likud Party head as he was to become a tennis champion. Begin would be proven wrong, as Sharon became Likud party leader in 1999, and prime minister in 2001.
Without a doubt, the most prominent tennis-playing Israeli politician has been Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin loved the sport, watched it regularly on the TV in his Tel Aviv apartment, and played every Saturday for 20 years. Interestingly, on the Saturday on which he was killed in 1996, he skipped his weekly game because of an eye infection. Despite his being an avid player, there are some questions regarding Rabin's skill level. The American diplomat Richard Haas recalled playing tennis with Rabin at George H.W. Bush's Kennebunkport home in 1992. According to Haas, Rabin was unimpressive on the court: "Rabin kept hitting the ball out or into the net and he kept saying he was sorry."
Hart Hasten, the Indianapolis philanthropist, was even starker in his assessment. He "had observed Rabin play tennis, and he was truly an atrocious player."
After Rabin's tragic assassination, Hasten had nice things to say about Rabin as a statesman, but not as a tennis player.
As he put it: "When they start to say that he was a great tennis player, that's where I draw the line."
As for Liberman, he may have trouble playing as frequently given his new portfolio. On the other hand, serving as defense minister will give him access to the whole Israeli officer corps as potential partners. Either way, it seems likely that Liberman will be writing a new chapter in the long tradition of tennis in Israeli politics.
The author is a US presidential historian and former White House aide. He is the author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House