Maccabiah: Jewish Olympics and Jews in the Olympics

    Shira Dickler

“…it is not important that the Maccabiah ends with special sport records, but the fact itself that it has taken place is the most significant” – Haaretz (Eisen 263)

Every four years, countries roar in excitement, preparing to send their athletes to compete in the Olympic games. In the interim, the quadrennial Maccabiah Games (the “Jewish Olympics”) take place in Israel. Though the involvement of Israel with both of these came within a few years of each other, the responses from the competing athletes and the people within Israel regarding the importance of each respective competition differ greatly. As the Olympic games take place outside of Israel, there is a greater opportunity for the team to feel like an outsider. Even though Israel sends a team to each Olympics and has the opportunity to compete with other countries as equals, the team members are not protected from feeling the sting of discrimination, which can be seen in the clash with Jewish holidays and the lack of attention given to grieving the Munich massacre. The Maccabiah games on the other hand, a competition sponsored by the Maccabi World Union, are self-generated within Israel and serve to bring Jews to the country and to compete together under the Zionist dream. Since the games are played under their own rules, no Jews can be turned away from playing based on his or her beliefs or culture. Moreover, the Maccabiah games have a stronger impact on Israeli identity than the Olympic Games, as they unite Jews together and there are no opportunities for Jews to feel excluded.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “identity” as “the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else.” In this paper, the word will be used to categorize what does or does not exemplify Israel’s individuality and uniqueness as a participant in the Olympics and as the host of the Maccabiah games.

            Countries from around the world send delegations to participate in the Olympic Games every four years to compete in a wide variety of sporting competitions. The Games were formally started by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1896 in Athens, Greece, the center of sports competitions centuries before. The Games continued quadrennially in different countries chosen by the committee, and the Winter Games premiered in 1924. Written by Pierre deCoubertin, the Olympic Charter lays out the goals of the movement:

To contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play (International Olympic Committee)

Participating in the Olympic games is an honor for athletes, as they compete with the best, constantly aiming to set new world records. Similarly, it is themed around the celebration of culture, and each host city incorporates its rich customs into the opening and closing ceremonies and throughout the games.

            Israel has been sending a team to the Olympic Games since 1952. Though its delegations are not as large as those of bigger countries, and though Israeli athletes take many less medals home, the team has certainly made international headlines: a terrorist attack against the Israeli team in 1972, banned from international tournaments in 1978, and the first Israeli gold medal winner in 2004. Israel has proven that even though it is small, its athletes are a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, and will fight to be recognized as a significant contributor to international events.

            At the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, influential leaders Theodor Herzl and Dr. Max Nordau made a plea for “Muscular Judaism”; they expressed the idea that the bodies of Jews had become weak and vulnerable in exile, and they must use sports and physical activity revitalize their bodies and spirit. This sparked the rise of sports organizations within the country (The Beginning). Sporting groups began in Israel in 1906 with the first organization for Jewish gymnasts, the Rishon LeZion Club. Gradually, more sports clubs popped up in different cities, and the Maccabi Federation of Israel joined them all together in 1912. In 1921 at the 12th World Jewish Congress, the Maccabi World Union was proposed as an umbrella organization for Jewish Sports associations worldwide. Its goals were as follows: “To foster physical education, belief in Jewish heritage and the Jewish nation, and to work actively for the rebuilding of our own country and for the preservation of our people" (A Brief History of Maccabi World Union). With the doctrine of Muscular Judaism and the desire to unite world Jewry, the Maccabiah games were proposed by the Maccabi World Union.

            Dubbed “the Jewish Olympics” by many, the Maccabiah Games began in 1932 and take place every four years. Similarly to the Olympics, Israel hosts delegations from all over the world but for the Maccabiah, all athletes are Jewish and the games are held in Israel each time. The Games branched from the Maccabi sports organizations that existed worldwide; the Israeli branch was responsible for introducing the idea of bringing the branches to the international arena to meet and compete. Since it began, there have been many notable athletes who have gone on from the Maccabiah to become champions in the Olympic games.

            The Maccabi movement defined itself as a representative of the Zionist movement but as an apolitical organization. Though the Maccabi movement was eager to spread its wings abroad, another sports organization grew bigger in Israel and it catered to the workers in the Maccabi framework. In 1923, Hapoel (the Worker) was created and soon became the largest sports organization in the region. The existence of multiple sports groups served to politicize sport in the region, and the two groups had different goals for the athletes of Israel—Hapoel specialized in internal sport, while the Maccabi focused on external relations (Kauffman 153).

            Facing rejection, as Israel did in the world of sports, was not new to the fledgling country; since before its statehood, the settlers had to face extreme hardships to be recognized as a worthwhile entity, and still today they often have to fight to be recognized as worthy to be represented on the world stage. In 1947, when the United Nations voted on the partition plan that divided Israel and Palestinian territory, 13 countries voted against it, almost a third of the countries who voted (Bard). When Israel declared statehood in 1948, it was immediately attacked by all surrounding Arab countries and had to prove itself militarily worthy. Surrounding countries continued to attack Israel in 1967, 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Lebanon War in 1982, and the second Lebanon War in 2006. Israel faces the threat of suicide and terrorist attacks every day since the dawn of the first Intifada in 1987. The country has settled numerous times for peace plans, and has given up territory and Palestinian prisoners to attempt negotiations. Yet many countries still denounce Israel’s political tactics and thus penalize them in other methods, such as the world athletic arena.

The beginnings of Israel’s involvement with the Olympics dealt with exclusion and separation from other participating countries, while the Maccabiah began as a means of combating exclusion and growing an original organic movement. Though a significant step in being integrated within the rest of the world, Israel’s vulnerability in its pre-state and early-state period provided many opportunities to be shunned by other countries. The Maccabiah movement’s beginnings worked to provide an outlet for athletes to compete, while uniting in the face of separation. Other rejections from international games, such as the Asian games, emphasized the importance of having the Maccabiah games in place.

As sports organizations grew in pre-state Israel, the region looked to participate in sports internationally. However since it was not recognized as a sovereign state at the time, complications arose between the International Olympic Committee and the organizations in Israel. The leaders of the Maccabi groups in Palestine put in a great deal of effort to become the representation of Jews in the Olympic Movement. In 1934, the IOC recognized the National Olympic Committee formed in Palestine as a member of the Olympic movement, however, with other factors contributing, they did not participate in the 1936 Berlin Games (Alperovich 642).

            Though the IOC declared this recognition, it was not an invitation to participate in the Games. According to George Eisen’s dissertation, The History of the Jewish Olympics, Germany sent a formal invitation to Palestine to compete in 1936. In response, the leaders in Israel wanted to accept and then boycott the Games in response to the persecution of the European Jews at the time. However, the Palestine Olympic Committee eventually rejected the invitation due to the fledgling state of the region’s sport (Eisen 201).

            Even though Israel was not formally rejected from the Berlin games, many European Jews were, reaffirming the trend of being separated from the international community. In Germany in the 1930’s, Jews were gradually given less and less privileges, including being thrown out of sports facilities and organizations. The Jewish sports clubs at the time were sub par, so many of the athletes had to end their careers after this happened. Likewise, Germany did not allow many capable Jews to compete on the German Olympic team, and those who were invited to play were allowed because of insincere reasons. Gretel Bergmann, a German track and field athlete, recounts her experience,

I was supposed to be a member of the German Olympic team, and that was something I couldn't understand, and didn't understand for a very long time. The only reason I was supposed to be on that Olympic team was because the Americans and the English and the French and a lot of the other nations threatened not to come to the 1936 Olympics due to the discrimination against the Jews (The Nazi Olympics).

Though Gretel ultimately decided not to participate, the propaganda surrounding her potential involvement was deceitful. Talented Jewish athletes looking to compete in worldwide sporting competitions were thus not allowed to join like their non-Jewish peers.

             Once Israel was declared a state in 1948, and attempted to be recognized by the IOC, they had to make concessions and agree to special standards in order to receive the invitation to the 1952 Helsinki Games. The Mediterranean Games, a special new competition for the region took place in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951. The president of Egypt at the time, Taher Pacha, was determined to exclude Israel from the Games, but if they were recognized as being part of the Olympic Movement, Pacha would have been forced to extend the invitation to them as well. Thus, the IOC allowed Israel to be recognized but on two conditions: that Arabs would be allowed to compete in Israel, and that Israel would not attempt to be a part of the Mediterranean Games (Alperovich 647). In order for Israel to participate in a world-event that many other countries were already involved in, they had to yield to others’ preferences, and exclude themselves from a regional competition. Thus, the start of Israel’s participation in the Olympic games was filled with compromises for the sake of others, a theme that is seen in many Games in years after.

             The Maccabiah games had a much different beginning than Israel’s involvement in the Olympics, even though the two happened within a few years of each other. The Maccabiah originated during the pre-statehood period in 1932, when Israeli athletes were not yet allowed to compete in the Olympics, thus celebrating the Jewish culture and unity in the face of rejection and exclusion. Maccabi Israel invited the worldwide Maccabi movements to compete in the Maccabiah games, since they were not allowed to attend the Olympics. Once the idea of an international Jewish sports competition was planted, the actual implementation was halted due to the lack of organizational and financial capacity. World War II also contributed to the prevention of the games, with Maccabi countries dealing with reconstruction and poor economic situations. However, despite the difficulties, many praised the importance of making sure the Games would be established. Dr. Gustav Spiegler, the chairman of the Maccabi World Union said,

    The Jewish Olympiad should become a demonstration of the people in their spiritual and physical unity. It should also testify to our previous        work, championing a Jewish Renaissance, bringing the recognition of equality of a reborn Jewish people among the family of nations (Eisen 80).

Even though leaders like Spiegler understood that the Maccabiah would not hold as much weight as the Olympic games, its conception was more about unity and inclusion rather than the actual competition. It was to take a stand against the ideology of rejection from other nations, and for Israel to take matters into her own hands and experience “rebirth”.

             Besides the rocky start in the worldwide sports competitions, other regional games caused problems for the Israeli team, returning to the old stigma of being excluded. The Asian Games, also quadrennial, takes place two years after each Olympic games and its mission is to “develop relations among the countries in the Asian continent” (The Asian Games 2002). Considered second in importance to the Olympics, the event is a multi-sports competition and began in New Delhi, India in 1951, a year after the third Maccabiah Games. In 1982, Israel was not invited to participate in the Asian Games, even though it was a member of the 34-nation Asian Game Federation; host country India felt that it was not equipped with the proper security measures to have Israel. Buta Singh, the Asian Games Special Organizing Committee Chairman affirmed, “Nobody wants Munich to be repeated in Delhi” (Exclude Israeli Athletes). Though the idea was noble in thought, it was called a “political act” by Israel as many were not happy with the country’s policies for Palestinians at the time, and Israel continued to be denied an invitation until 2002 (Israel May Return to Asian Games). Though it had seemed that exclusion from international sporting competitions was extinct with Israel’s entry into the Olympics, the situation with the Asian Games reaffirmed the importance of having the Maccabiah Games in place.

             Since Israel took part in its first Olympics in 1952, many events have happened that serve to pinpoint Israel as the odd one out, harming the competing athletes both physically and ideologically. In these instances, Israel’s identity as a key member of international competitions is harmed, and the importance of the Maccabiah Games is elevated. In the events that will be described, the Munich massacre and the games on Yom Kippur, athletes were targeted because of their faith. In the Maccabiah, this form of rejection would never take place, as the “Jewish” aspect of the games weighs heavier than the sports competitions.

             In the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, the Israeli athletes were victims of an attack by Black September, a Palestinian guerrilla group hoping to take the athletes hostage in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Ultimately, 17 from the delegation were killed. Ironically, the money spent on security in Munich was not high, as the country felt that it needed to show a new face since the Berlin Olympics, and tried to refrain from reminding people about the atrocities it had committed decades before.

            In response to the deaths, the Olympics were paused for one day of mourning. Though the Israeli delegation put in a request for them to be stopped entirely, the Olympic Committee claimed that, “The Olympic spirit is stronger than terrorist acts,” and thus had the games carry on (Galily). Moreover, a memorial service organized in response to the deaths featured a speech by the IOC president, Avery Brundage, however he did not once mention the athletes killed, and instead focused on the “strength of the Olympic movement” (Munich Massacre Remembered). In order for Israel to be able to mourn their athletes, they had to do it by themselves and not with the support of the Olympic Committees and other delegations.

            When the Olympic games fall out on a Jewish Holy Day, the Israeli delegation may face a conflict, having to again set themselves to others’ standards or choose not to participate in the games. As the Olympic games typically take place at the end of the summer, the opportunity for conflicts with Jewish holidays is possible. In 1988 during the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the games fell out on Yom Kippur.. An article in the Washington Post describes the different reactions,

It's very insensitive of the IOC,’ said Rabbi Kenneth Zisook, a Chicagoan who is sending out pamphlets to Jewish Olympians inviting them to services at the U.S. base. ‘The Israelis have a couple people who are very good and may lose a medal because of this. It seems to me with a major Jewish holiday like that, the IOC could schedule events that do not conflict with any Jewish people’ (Brennan).

Even though some Israeli athletes were able to have their events pushed off by a few hours until after the holiday, they would still have had to compete on an empty stomach. Therefore, some athletes chose not to compete at all that year, and others missed key days from their events. The negligence of checking to make sure that the Games were not on any significant religious holiday was an oversight, but the impact it had on Israeli athletes was huge. Uri Afek, the chef de mission of the Israel Olympic Committee said, "We found out 3 1/2 years ago. We are not angry with anyone. It is our problem. We understand. We cannot change it. We can do nothing” (Brennan). Though the Israel Olympic Committee did not blame anyone or feel hurt by the scheduling conflict, it shows the Israelis once again making concessions in order to be prominent on the world stage.

            The Maccabiah Games, on the other hand, have more control about scheduling events on holidays, even though not all athletes may be celebrating them. When the games were first beginning, the ideal week would have been during Passover, yet the organizers decided that due to religious implications, it would not be an appropriate time to hold the competition. Thus, even though the majority of the athletes probably did not uphold the holiday to the extent of the more religious sects, the concept of inclusion and non-discrimination made the games open to any who wanted to participate (Eisen 118).

            The perspectives of officials and fans of each of the respective games show how the impact of the Maccabiah resonates for Israel more than the involvement in the Olympics. They express the uniqueness of the Maccabiah within Israel, and how it is significant to Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.

Officials within Israel see the Maccabiah as a significant representation of Jewish talent and abilities. General Aharon Doron, president of the Israel Sports Federation explained,

The Maccabiah Games actually achieve the mystical goal of the Olympic amateur ideal. The athlete is judged by what he is – and that does not exclude his nationality…The Maccabiah Games offer purer sport than the Olympics or the professionals…They establish a personal link among people. There is nothing like the personal experience of meeting and competing with fellow athletes from all over the world…That is the essence of amateur sport and is achieved in the Maccabiah Games to a greater degree than in any other competition in the world. (Down)

Doron, a high-ranking Israeli who deals with Israel’s involvement in many sports competitions, see the Maccabiah Games as vital to Israel and Jews worldwide. He claims that what the Games offer could never be matched by participating in the Olympics.

           The ordinary Israeli citizen also see the Olympics as less important. According to a survey, Israelis do not pay as much attention to who is representing the country in a particular year in the Olympic games, showing that the abroad games do not resonate as highly in the locals’ minds. The poll’s results showed that 76 percent of Israelis were unable to name any Israeli Olympic athlete in the 2008 Beijing games, and 96 percent could not recall any of the new immigrants who were attending, when they made up one third of the athletes going to the games (The Olympics Overseas). Within Israel, it seems as though the idea of representing the country abroad has become old news; it is only during a significant achievement that the average citizen pays attention. Therefore, Israel’s participation in the Olympics is not special, and more attention is paid to athletic competitions taking place within the country itself.

Though talent is not as high in the Maccabiah Games as it is in the Olympics, the contingent who travel to Israel to compete see the camaraderie as more significant than who is better at a specific sport. Nat Holman, president of the United States Committee of Sports for Israel and long-time basketball star, said,

[The] Maccabiah Game competition is a great experience in the lives of young people from the 37 countries attending. This way, rivalries will be left on the field as competitors learn more about each other as individuals, identify with their Jewish heritage and discover the bonds which have linked our people for 5,740 years (Kale).

The comfort and togetherness of all the Jewish athletes rank much higher than the skill needed to excel in sport. Merely participating in the games is enough to have an impact on any of the athletes, while in the Olympics, the impact is defined by medals and achievements compared to others.

            Israel’s standards for participating in the Olympic games are much higher than the Maccabiah, and thus a bigger sense of Israeli identity is infrequent, felt only when a significant accomplishment is reached. Again, with the Maccabiah, the games have more meaning in just their existence and the opportunity it gives to participants, which provides a constant sense of Israel identity, not a sporadic one.

            When Israel won its first Olympic gold medal in 2004, it represented more than just an athlete’s win; rather, it was seen as Israel finally being up to par with the rest of the other countries. Gal Fridman, a windsurfer in the Athens games, brought the country to tears in awe and triumph. Oded David Kramer, a columnist for publication Yediot Achranot, reflected on the meaning of the win:

You see, Israel only knows how to suffer. We don't know how to be happy. Every time we have a happy day like this, it is a victory over terrorism and the suffering that dominates our lives. This is anything but a gold medal story. This is about Israel trying to be a normal country, just once (Kaufman).

The country’s reaction to the medal is about succeeding in the world arena, and proving its worth to others. With all that Israel has experienced with the Olympic games and rejection, it was a sense of affirmation that they finally had a place.

            Athletes who go on the participate in the Olympics after a stint with the Maccabiah, express how the brotherhood and sincerity of the Jewish sporting experience has an impact like no other sporting competition. Referred to as the “Greatest Athlete of all Time”, Mark Spitz got his start in the Maccabiah pool at the age of 15 in 1965. Spitz sees his experience in Israel as vital to his identity as a Jew and to the beginnings of his career—“It gave me the opportunity to compete internationally, a step on the ladder to success. It is also a symbolic experience, giving Jewish athletes the chance to compete with other Jewish athletes” (Spitz’s story). Spitz reflected on his Maccabiah days as pivotal to his athleticism on the world stage, and was impacted by the sense of Jewish togetherness that the games provided.

            Both Jewish and Israeli athletes have certainly come far since the original doctrine for “Muscular Judaism”. Israelis compete in many international sporting events, and have strong organizations within the country built up, both with Maccabi and Hapoel. However, even though the Olympics has been significant in bringing Israel to the forefront of many headlines, the games do not provide as much unity and camaraderie as the Maccabiah Games. The Maccabiah shapes Israel’s identity as a sovereign Jewish state by bringing Diaspora Jews to compete in Israel under Zionist ideals, and no Jew is turned away for what he or she believes. Israel does not have to conform to the ideas and rules of the rest of the international arena, and does not face conflicts with Jewish holidays, terrorism abroad, or exclusion. The Maccabiah Games have become an integral part of Israel’s culture and connection with Jews worldwide, and has been a pivotal part of athletics in Israel from its conception until today.


Works Cited


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