In the End, Maccabiah Games Will Go on — with Fewer Athletes

Despite hesitations and many cancellations, the Maccabiah Games are set to take place, against all odds.

Organizers of the 16th Maccabiah were expected to announce last Friday that the Games, slated to begin July 16, had been postponed until next summer. If so, it would have marked the first time the Maccabiah Games had been canceled since World War II — and would have made them the latest casualty of the nine-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Instead, at the last minute, the steering committee decided to hold the games as scheduled after Maccabi-USA announced it would send a delegation after all.

Other delegations — from South Africa, Canada, and Australia — quickly announced that they, too, would attend.

The British delegation, however, will not participate. In all, just 2,000 athletes are expected to compete, down from the 5,000 who originally registered.

Given the expected turnout, it is possible that the games will be cut from 10 days to seven or eight.

The question of whether the Games would be held followed the recent announcement by the U.S. Reform movement that it is canceling its summer youth camps this year in Israel.

Both developments drew the ire of Israeli officials, who feel that especially now — when Israelis feel they are under siege from Palestinian terror attacks and international criticism — world Jewry should make good on its frequent protestations of unity.

By canceling trips, however, Diaspora Jews were refusing to show solidarity with Israel at this difficult time, Israeli officials charged.

Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh spoke earlier this month of the “disgraceful” behavior of those “who for all these years have talked to us about the unity of the Jewish people over mounds of bagels and lox.”

This week, government officials reacted gratefully to the decision to proceed with the Maccabiah Games.

Science, Culture and Sports Minister Matan Vilnai announced that the decision “was right because the Maccabiah is not a regular event, and because any other decision could have put the entire Maccabiah project in jeopardy.”

The decision was “an important test for the solidarity of the Jewish people with Israel in those difficult times that we face,” Vilnai said.

Michael Melchior, deputy foreign affairs minister, originally showed understanding for the hesitations of Jewish athletes to attend the games. However, Melchior was one of the key figures in persuading the delegations to send their members, urging world Jewry to do its utmost to assure full participation in the games.

The Israeli public, however, reacted with relative indifference to the announcement that the games would go on. An opinion poll on the Internet edition of the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot showed that 50 percent of Israelis supported the decision as a means to show world Jewry that “business in Israel” was proceeding “as usual.”

However, a poll in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv showed that 56 percent of Israelis do not intend to come to the Maccabiah Games to show solidarity with the Jewish athletes.

When it looked probable last week that the Games would be postponed, many Israeli politicians said it would represent a slap in Israel’s face from world Jewry.

“Canceling the Maccabiah or postponing it is like granting Yasser Arafat the gold medal,” Knesset member Eliezer Sandberg said.

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the Games should go on “to symbolize the solidarity of the Jewish People these very days.”

Since the outbreak of Palestinian violence last September, tourism to Israel has fallen to new lows, with hotels throughout the country reporting marginal occupancy.

Had it not been for Jewish tourists, however, the blow would have been much more severe.

According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, the number of Jewish visitors between October 2000 and April 2001 fell by 5 percent compared with the same period a year before. Others in the tourism industry cited a much higher drop-off.

The number of non-Jewish tourists dropped by 56 percent, according to the Tourism Ministry.

After the violence began, some major airlines — including KLM, Lufthansa, Air France and Swissair — changed their flight schedules so that crew members would not have to spend the night in Israel.

Jewish youth groups, who in the past showed solidarity with Israel at difficult times like the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, are now preferring to stay home:

About half the scheduled participants — some 350 kids — canceled their participation in an Israel-based summer camp affiliated with the Conservative youth movement.

A summer camp run under the auspices of West Coast Jewish federations, which was to be attended by some 600 youths, was canceled.

The Orthodox movement, Young Judaea and several North American Jewish Community Centers — along with Jewish organizations in Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and the United Kingdom — also reported cancellations.

In one of the rare exceptions, the Lubavitch-affiliated Ma’ayanot movement announced that most of its scheduled 1,100 youths would come to Israel this summer.

And Birthright Israel, which brings young people from around the world on free trips to the Jewish state, postponed trips scheduled for early June but announced this week that some 5,000 students would come to Israel this summer.

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