The Olympic Games show us that Zionism is not a dirty word
So long as Zionism, like Olympic nationalism, is tempered by other values, it can be a force for good. But as soon as Jews forget about our ethical mission, nationalism can devolve into something horrific.
This week, my wife and are going to the Olympics. Britain seems to be aflame with Olympic fever; people are desperate to go to any event they can get tickets for, and every newspaper reserves its front pages for the latest British medallists. The pride in hosting the event and the pride in our medallists is palpable. As a Zionist, I see great grounds here for inspiration.
“Nationalism’ is, to most modern ears, a bad word. Nationalism tore Europe apart on more than one occasion. Nationalism and its cousin, Imperialism, were responsible for pillaging the third world and keeping the poor nations poor. Nationalism was at the heart of Nazi evil. To be a civilised member of the post-war West is to shirk nationalism in favour of globalism.
And yet, the Olympics are all about nationalism. In our opening ceremony, we Brits, under the direction of Oscar winning director Danny Boyle sought to present to the entire world what we take it to mean when we say, with pride, that we’re British. The nations of the world are invited to come to compete under the banner of their national flag, while also exhibiting values such as good sportsmanship, effort, endurance, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and the like.
Despite giving it their all in an effort to win gold, there is a great display of magnanimity among many of the competitors. We see sincere handshakes and pats on the back of both congratulations and commiseration between competitors of different nations. We also see a generosity of spirit among the spectators. Sure, they come to see their own national sporting heroes take the gold, and yet they’re generally very willing to cheer on good performances irrespective of national origin.
One only has to remember the antics of Eric Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, in the Sydney Olympics of 2000. Coming from a developing country, with very few facilities for swimmers, Moussambani, though, at that point, the very best swimmer in Equatoguinean history, compared to the other competitors, actually looked as if he didn’t know how to swim. Because of various disqualifications, he made it to the final of the 100m freestyle, and took over twice the amount of time that it took the winner to complete the distance. Indeed, over the last 15 meters, it almost looked as if he was going to drown. And despite the slightly comical undertones of this event, the crowd was very genuine in its rousing support as he struggled, in an empty pool, to make it to the finishing line. The Olympics is home to a great deal of nationalism, but Moussambani demonstrated that the Olympics is about more than that.
When these sporting events go right, what they help to show the world is that taking pride in national belonging doesn’t have to be an evil. In fact, it can be a source of great communal cohesion, healing and social meaning. As long as national belonging is tempered by other values, as in these sporting events they are tempered by fair play and good sportsmanship, then the nationalism never becomes a form of supremacy. We take pride in our nation, but not at the cost of other people rightfully taking pride in theirs.
Zionism is merely a brand of nationalism. It is the nationalism of the Jewish people, conceived of as a nation, just as the Bible brands us, “The Nation of Israel.” As long as our Zionism, like Olympic nationalism, is tempered by other values, it can be a force for the good. But, as soon as Jews forget about their ethical mission, engaging in price-tag attacks on Palestinians in order to keep hold, at all costs, of our land, then our nationalism can devolve into something horrific. If, on the other hand, we hold onto our other values - such as our ethical monotheism - more dearly than our nationalism, and if we recognise the right of other national communities to take pride in their identities, and recognise their desire to rule over their own destinies, just as we demand the right to a secure future for our sovereign state, then it becomes clear that Zionism need not be any more harmful than the pride that Britain is currently experiencing.
Of course, there is another side to the Olympics. There is the waste of money. There are the inequalities that dictate that in certain expensive disciplines only the wealthy countries can succeed. There is the Hellenistic worship of physicality that the Jewish Maccabees fought against in the time of Hanukah (how ironic that our Jewish Olympics are called the Maccabiah Games!). There is a Lebanese team who denigrate sportsmanship in favour of a narrow nationalism when they can’t bring themselves to train in eye-shot of the Israelis. There was the refusal to mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 of Israel’s Olympians. And yet, despite all of this, the Olympics have something to teach us Zionists about healthy forms of nationalism in the modern world.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.