This is the year of the Maccabiah Games. The 12th quadrennial set of Jewish Olympic contests will begin tomorrow in Israel and conclude on July 25. More than 500 athletes from the United States are expected to participate in the Games, one of the most important offsprings of the Zionist movement.
The Maccabi World Union was formally proclaimed at the World Zionist Congress in 1921 in Basel. There were Jewish athletic clubs and groups even then in most of the European countries, in the Near East and in North Africa. The first branches of Jewish athletic organizations were founded in 1895 in Berlin, Constantinople, Bucharest and St. Petersburg.
At that time, those responsible for the advance of the Maccabiah movement and its objectives believed it was necessary to provide for the many members rallying to the movement a program of activities combining physical training with a Jewish educational background. The accent in recent years has been on the sports side rather than on the educational side.
Sixty-four years ago the program adopted by the WZCongress was acceptable to the rank and file of the Maccabi members. Its implications raised the hope of every Jew in the diaspora that, someday, the return to Zion would become a reality.
TRANSMITTING TRADITIONS OF JUDAISM
The organizers of the Maccabiah movement originally felt that they had a duty to uphold and to transmit the traditions of Judaism at a time when the Jewish people were living in a world which was becoming devoid of moral standards and social justice, making them vulnerable to the erosion of their identity. This is still true today.
In the early years of this century, Jewish communities throughout Europe faced discrimination, and in addition in Russia became the targets of massive pogroms organized and abetted by the Czarist regimes. Jews were defenseless; they were not protected by civil rights legislation.
The Jewish people at that time were welded together by common religious links and traditions which had been maintained throughout the ages. Most of the Jews believed strongly that their redemption would come with the ultimate arrival of the Messiah. They were not conditioned to a situation of having to abandon the images of the Chosen People or of the eternal scapegoat.
TIME FOR SELF-DEFENSE
But some imaginative secular Jews felt a need to shake the religious leadership out of their inertia and to convince them that the time had come for Jews to train themselves in the art of self-defense, should they be attacked by hostile neighbors.
This was an exciting idea that inspired many public-spirited communal leaders to provide physical training to render all able-bodied men physically fit; to spend more hours of leisure out in the fresh air and not to cling forever to the image of the “People of the Book.”
The younger generation trained by the Maccabi movement was taught that it was better to fight and, if need be, to die rather than to surrender. This was the lesson inherited from the valient ancient Maccabi warriors who were led by Judah the Maccabee in the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes (167/6 BCE) in which Syrian armies suffered successive defeats.
The remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto were erstwhile members of the Maccabi movement. The ranks of the Haganah were known to have included young people from the ranks of Maccabi. Many of those who were responsible for the defense of Jewish homes in Latin American countries where dictators ruled and fascism was rampant were young men and women trained by Maccabi.
Fascist marches in London’s East End during the 1930’s were stopped by members of Maccabi. During the Six-Day War in 1967, 15,000 Maccabi members responded to the call for recruits. There are numerous other instances over the decades in which the Maccabi movement played an active and constructive part in Jewish survival. The sporting powers of Maccabi competitors in local, national and international contests have added luster to the image of the Jew.
The approximately 500 athletes representing the United States in the Games now are a far cry from the first contingent of Maccabi performers who participated in the 1932 Games in Palestine. At that time, the U.S. sent a team of 13 athletes. The highlight of their departure was when then Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York blessed the Jewish athletes as they boarded their ship and said “You bring home the bacon and I’ll eat it.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.