Israel’s first Arab-Israeli basketball captain wrestles with racism, identity and the love of the game


Shahd Abboud made history as the first-ever Arab-Israeli captain of a team in Israel’s Female Basketball Premier League. She’s using her platform to create more opportunities for women like her.

When it comes to basketball in the United States, the focus is always on the NBA and the WNBA — and for good reason. The leagues are a collective best, with a total of 42 teams, hundreds of players, and billions of dollars in contracts. But once you step outside the States, there’s a literal world of basketball that’s just as compelling, just as exciting, and absolutely thriving.

Shahd Abboud is a 26-year-old swingman for Israel’s Female Basketball Premier League, one of the biggest in the world. Abboud is signed to Maccabi Haifa, one of the top teams in the league. Abboud hit the ground running when she joined up in 2018; she was named the first-ever Arab-Israeli captain of a team by Hapoel Petah Tekva — the first male or female to earn the honor.

The title is impressive, especially when you consider the odds stacked against Abboud on her way to earning it. For starters, as a youth basketball player who hailed from the predominantly Arab village of Nazareth, (known as the “Arab capital of Israel”), it’s unlikely many people expected her to get this far. Arab athletes in Israel face a number of barriers to achieving success, some of which begin in their own communities, or even in their own homes.

As Abboud explained, up until very recently, playing basketball professionally wasn’t considered a viable career path for many Arabs in Israel, period. That’s partly because of attitudes that many Arab families have towards basketball and sports in general — a sport is a great hobby to have, something that keeps you active and having fun, but it’s not a real job. Abboud says, “As a minority in Israel, we always feel we need to be better in what we do to get a fair chance.” To many, that means overachieving in the classroom, not on a set of 92’x50’ wooden planks.

Despite this, Abboud has persevered in the sport since childhood. As the oldest of two former professional basketball players, it’s not an immediate surprise that she gravitated to the sport. In a lot of ways, it had to be inevitable: with all that talent in the gene pool, how could she not? But what has surprised even those closest to her is how high she’s gone in the four seasons since joining the league, and how much further she can still reach. Abboud explains that even in her basketball family, she’s still faced with questions: What’s next? What will your real career be? It’s heavy, she says, because “Basketball is not considered a good enough career. The main barrier [for Arab players] is culturally the way Arabs look at it.”

On the court, Abboud’s position is similar to her position in life: as a swingman, she can perform as a guard and as a forward, able to shift between the two positions based on what her team needs. Personally, balancing her Arab-Israeli identity between two cultures that are so often at odds with one another has been the constant hum just below the surface of her entire career.

Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images /

Basketball in Israel: From Palestine to present day

Basketball in Israel dates back nearly a century to when the country was still known as Palestine by everyone. The sport caught on pretty quickly after Americans introduced it, and the first official game was played all the way back in 1935. In his paper “Playing Hoops in Palestine: The Early Development of Basketball in Israel,” Professor Yair Galily, head of the Sport, Media and Society Research Lab at the Sammy Ofer School of Communications and a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University Herzliya Israel, explains that the biggest reason basketball grew in popularity in the country is the same reason it’s popular nearly everywhere. At the end of the day, you only need a hoop (or some kind of goal) and ball.

Interest in basketball only grew over the next two decades, and the Israeli Premier League (IPL) was officially launched in 1954. It was followed by the Israeli Female Premier League in 1957. The first iteration of the IPL was made up of eight teams and designed to test pre-existing tensions between sports associations Maccabi and Hapoel, who each insisted on an equal number of players from each association across the board; by 1955 the league boasted 12 teams and was on track toward establishing a second-tier league that would allow players to be promoted or demoted based on performance.

Present-day Israeli basketball has grown into a nearly entirely different beast, though with echoes of the years past. The quality of players in Israel has grown tremendously with the influx of players from the NBA and WNBA; Israel has welcomed these players with open arms for the notoriety and sense of authenticity their presence lends the league and by extension the country itself. While speaking at an event sponsored by the Israeli Consulate in New York, former basketball player Derrick Sharp explained that for Black American players, Israel offers a potentially safer home. He said, “It is safer in Israel than anywhere — especially for a black person and nowadays with what’s going on in Minnesota.”

Despite Sharp’s statement, on the surface, it’s tempting to draw parallels between the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racism experienced by Arabs in Israel to the ongoing police brutality and racism Black Americans face every day in the United States. Many Black athletes, such as Kyrie Irving, and actors, such as Viola Davis, have demonstrated their support for Palestinians and Arabs in Israel, and Zellie Thomas, an organizer for Black Lives Matter, directly linked their fight with that of the Arabs, saying, “we know occupation, we know colonization, we know police brutality.”

One reason those parallels are tempting to draw is that the two situations seem to often overlap. In 2020, only weeks after George Floyd was killed, Palestinians were horrified by the Israeli police shooting of Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old autistic man who was killed after the police mistook his phone for a gun despite pleas from his caregiver. A year later, the country found itself under fire again after a group of Israeli settlers appeared to intentional goad a group of Palestinians who were breaking fast during Ramadan; this led to clashes between groups of Arabs and groups of Jews that persisted for days, eventually growing into a full-on conflict that included the bombing of several buildings in the Gaza Strip.

For Americans looking in from the outside, it’s tough to separate what plays out in our streets daily for Black Americans from what is shown on the news from Israel. But for others, the two issues are entirely separate. And somehow, Arab and Jewish athletes exist in between these two realities, playing the sports they love and building relationships with one another that just might transcend politics entirely.

Training youth players from the ground up

International basketball trainer and humanitarian Tremaine Dalton is familiar with the tensions that are constantly simmering below the surface in Israel. While his professional relationship with Abboud didn’t begin until the summer of 2021, Dalton’s history with Israel dates back nearly a decade, when he was on the roster for a second league team in the country before moving on to play professionally in both Australia and France. He returned to the country in 2018 to train former Kentucky Wildcat James Young, who had signed on with Maccabi Haifa and was making a bid for the NBA. He also currently works with Israeli player Roman Sorkin and Willy Workman, a Jewish-American who plays professionally in Israel.

While he can’t speak directly to what Arabs who aspire to play basketball in Israel contend with, Dalton does draw parallels to his own experiences as Black athlete in the United States and around the world. He explains, “From my own personal experiences, if you don’t see enough of who you are in a sport, or any occupation for that matter, you tend to not want to pursue it. For example, it took Tiger Woods coming onto the scene for many African Americans to feel there was room for them in the sport of golf. In fact, my oldest son TJ plays golf because Woods is his reference point, and my youngest, Benjamin, has found a place in martial arts because of Teddy Riner. Without those reference points, it could feel impossible for a Black person to feel they can make it in the sport, let alone become a superstar.”

These ideas are echoed by Abboud, who believes strongly that many Arab girls just need to see someone like her in the game to realize they can play it, too. That’s why she and Dalton are partnering together to plan a series of training camps in Israel for youth players in Nazareth, Tel Aviv, and the West Bank (the camps are currently being planned for Passover 2022). While the training sessions are an extension of the work Dalton has already been doing towards improving the present and future state of girl’s and women’s basketball in the world, they would be the first of their kind from an American trainer in the country, bringing together young female athletes in a cross-cultural environment focused on what they can do together, with the right support.

There’s precedence in Israel that proves these kinds of programs work. The US-based organization PeacePlayers has a five-part program that gives roughly 500 Jewish and Arab youth players between the ages of 6 and 25-years-old in the West Bank and Israel the opportunity to play basketball together. In addition to playing the game, the program focuses its yearly or multi-year programming on teaching conflict resolution and leadership skills. The organization has found that its participants didn’t necessarily flock toward the program because they were interested in building relationships with people they don’t know and feel they don’t relate to — they just want to play basketball, and building relationships with their Arab or Jewish neighbors is just a side product.

As explained in their 2020 publication “Report of Research Highlights,” PeacePlayers notes that the organization has “harnessed the tool of basketball largely because of its unique ability to transcend national, cultural and socio-economic divides, enabling the program to attract those who typically do not engage in peacebuilding”

There are differences between what Abboud and Dalton are planning and what currently exists in Israel, but the idea that basketball can help youth players see beyond what they have or haven’t been taught about one another is certainly a component. Dalton explains, “My goal, like in any country I work in, is to bring people together through the sport of basketball. I’ve found through sports peace can be made through any conflict as every participant mutes their outside issues and concerns to focus on the game. Whether as teammates or in competition, opportunities and unlikely friends are made regardless of culture or race. Just as my programs have worked toward addressing gun violence in the United States, racial inclusion in Australia, and combating poverty in Panama, the common solution is the game.”

What sets Abboud and Dalton’s camp apart is that it’s designed around the international tutorial Dalton designed. Girls in Israel and the West Bank will receive the training first-hand from Dalton and Abboud, but by doing so they will be instantly connected with communities around the world who are learning the same moves and the same structure online. As Dalton puts it, the tutorial and their camp are two parts of a journey toward creating an international basketball language, one that will help “people identify with their neighbors through basketball, as well as with people from other communities, cities, states, and countries.”

For Abboud, this quest is personal. As a young Arab player in Israel, she was always the only person with her ethnic background on her teams. She explained that apart from the four years she spent playing college basketball in the United States, she’s always been the only Arab person that her teammates have met. Arabs in Israel are an ethnic minority; current demographic counts indicate approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population identifies as Arab and/or Palestinian by ethnicity and Israeli by citizenship.

Abboud explains, “They [Jews in Israel] don’t know anything about us and we don’t know anything about them, either. It’s easier for us to learn about them because they’re the majority in the country. They’re everywhere and everything is about them. It’s easier for Arabs to learn more about Jewish people.” If the two groups aren’t interacting, if Jewish youth grow up without any Arab counterparts sitting side-by-side in school or playing basketball on the same team, it’s difficult to see how the two groups will ever learn much about one another.

While this separation clearly exists, there is no official policy of segregation within Israel (the same cannot be unequivocally stated about the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip). Jews and Arabs in the country tend to live apart in their own communities for a variety of reasons, and it’s generally understood and accepted by everyone that Arab communities receive less funding than their Jewish counterparts, which results in lower-quality schools and sports programs. Abboud admits that this lack of funding also results in sub-par coaching and playing opportunities for Arab youth, a reality that is backed up by research conducted by the Jewish Virtual Library.

As Abboud told me, her role on her team in Israel is profoundly unique. She’s had the opportunity to break down stereotypes previously held by her Israeli teammates and their families (“They all love me,” she says) and to see stereotypes she and her own family held be dismantled by the teammates who have come into her home. As she explained, “They started to realize they can look at a person as a person and not as a religion or a label.”

Photo Credit: Oded Karni
Photo Credit: Oded Karni /

Shahd Abboud: From youth leagues to achieving the impossible

When Abboud was named the first Arab captain of a basketball team in Israel in 2018, she achieved something that generations of both Arabs and Israelis likely once thought was impossible. On one hand, it’s easy to note that despite the monumental nature of her feat, her story is just one in a series of stories about people achieving what others would never have expected. On the other hand, it feels impossible to not pause and reflect on the historic nature of what she’s achieved before the age of 30, and how much more she can still work toward and make happen through the game.

She explains, “I know I’m doing something that nobody has done before, and I know I’m setting the goal for other Arab Israelis to look at me and say, ‘She did it, and I can do it as well.’” She pauses, then adds, “They’re not looking at my nationality. No one cares if I’m Arab or Jewish.”

Abboud’s basketball career is far from finished, and it might seem surprising that at this point she’s willing to spend her time outside of the court building camps and programs such as the one that’s being planned with Dalton. Her motivation has everything to do with both her community and the country she calls home, even when it’s tough to see herself in Israel at all. She says that her goal is to have more players just like her, which will hopefully help work toward building a stronger Israeli basketball program, and by extension, even a stronger country. “I think having more Arab players on teams could make someone connect more to Arabs as people and vice-versa, make someone understand, and make two groups of people want to learn more about one another. That would be an awesome thing if that happens.”

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