Zionist Poster Boys

Organizers of the Maccabiah Games made clever use of graphics to forge an image of the strong, nationalist ?new Jew? − who contrasted sharply with his puny Diaspora cousin

David Rapp
David Rapp

Look at the poster reprinted below, for the first Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv in 1932. It shows the silhouette of an anonymous athlete - a detached anti-hero standing on a clearly uneven surface, with one leg akimbo and the other one facing forward crookedly. The athlete is holding a tall pole bearing a disproportionately large flag, waving wildly in the air. The flag and pole hide the man's face, and one part of the flag is curled up so that it looks as if it is threatening to knock him down. Even the symbol of the international Maccabi movement in the center of the flag is somewhat slanted and adds to the overall sense of impermanence. Is this the proud Jewish athlete about whom Zionist leader and author Max Nordau spoke with such pathos at the end of the 19th century (fin de siecle), when describing 'muscular Judaism' at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898? Not really. Yet, on the other hand, this is also not the rather atrophied Diaspora Jew, whom Nordau and others derided so venomously.

In any event Nordau, who died in Paris in the early 1920s, was already resting in peace in Tel Aviv - after his remains were transferred from France - when mayor Meir Dizengoff, mounted on a white horse, led the festive procession marking the opening of the first Maccabiah Games in March 1932. The procession passed through the city streets and ended up at Maccabiah Stadium, which was built near the Yarkon River estuary. Participating in the games, held under the patronage of British high commissioner Sir Arthur Wauchope, were 390 athletes from 18 countries.

Organizers of the Maccabiah sought to stress the connection of the Jewish people to their land - something that did not escape the notice of local Arab residents. Since then, the games, whose organizers initially wanted to call it the 'Maccabiada' (similar to 'Olympiada', the Hebrew term for the Olympic Games), have been held for the most part every four years, featuring Jewish athletes from all over the world. The tradition of holding the event a year after the Olympics was set after the Fifth Maccabiah in 1957. In the early 20th century, planners of the Maccabiah hoped the event would reinforce the self-image of Diaspora Jews and strengthen their connection to the Land of Israel.

Efforts to nurture the athletic spirit were part of a process that swept Europe at the time: Athletic associations were flourishing on the Continent as nationalist movements underwent their own awakening. Jewish athletic organizations were thus established one after another, drawing their strength from Zionism's improved image among world Jewry: Indeed, in contrast to the image of the weak people living in the Diaspora, a move was now afoot to develop a 'new Jew' - muscular, athletic and strong, who would renew the ancient tradition of the Jewish heroes and enable the return of the nation to its land. These sports associations borrowed their names from legendary heroes of Jewish history, among them the famed Maccabean dynasty. The Maccabi World Union, which was formed in the 1920s, described itself as Zionist and aimed to advance the national struggle of the Jewish nation. It is no wonder, then, that Maccabi embraced the initiative enthusiastically promoted by one of its active members, Yosef Yekutieli, to hold a competitive sports event on the soil of the Land of Israel. The year 1932 was chosen as a target date for the first one - among other reasons, because it marked 1,800 years since the Bar Kochba Revolt. This symbol was of special significance under the British Mandate in Palestine; indeed, those who initiated the idea of the Maccabiah did not suffice with short-term ambitions in the face of a rule by a foreign power. They hoped to cultivate a large group of Jewish athletes, who would constitute a spearhead for the entire Jewish nation. Thus, great expectations were piled on the backs of the athletes, for achievements not only in the field of sports, but in the national arena as well. They were the ones who would prove that the Jews could be 'winners' again.

Not a 'winner'

From its inception, the Zionist movement made clever use of visual images for the purpose of education and propaganda. The new Jew - or, in this case, the Jewish athlete was usually depicted as a young, strong, handsome and muscular man, a model for admiration and identification that exemplified the ideal of the Jew who has chosen a new life in his historical homeland. Admiration for the body and its development, which for years had been repressed and had negative associations in Judaism, were from now on emphasized and reinforced.

Contrary to the common Zionist-didactic tradition, the athlete depicted on the poster of the First Maccabiah Games is far from looking like a 'winner'. Yet, in spite of that, there is still something heroic about the moment captured in the poster: The temporary-looking stance of the figure actually symbolizes the dimensions of the achievements. The hesitant image of the athlete was replaced by a solid, powerful figure for the next Maccabiah, which took place in 1935, against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism in Europe and the desire to strengthen Zionist awareness the world over.

In spite of the reservations of the Mandate government about holding big public events in the streets, the city fathers of Tel Aviv and the organizers of the Maccabiah held processions and ceremonies with strong nationalist overtones. Tens of thousands of people participated in the opening ceremony in 1935, according to some reports. The Palestine Post reported that at the event, the anthem 'Hatikva' was sung and the flag of the Maccabiah was raised. It was also reported that residents displayed the blue-and-white colors of the Zionist movement around the city. The Second Maccabiah hosted 1,350 athletes from 28 countries (including a delegation of Jews from Nazi Germany).

As the British feared, many of the Maccabiah participants took advantage of their arrival in Palestine and remained there in violation of the temporary visas they had been issued. In light of the restrictions on immigration during the period when Nazi rule was becoming entrenched, and in the context of the narrative of aliyah, the Maccabiah was seen as a Zionist story of heroism. In British eyes, of course, such phenomena were seen as reflecting clearly unsportsmanlike behavior.

The poster designed before the Second Maccabiah contains almost all the elements of the previous version, and yet the two posters are completely different. The shadowy figure of 1932 is replaced in 1935 by an athlete whose face and body are clearly outlined. He is wearing white clothing bearing a blue Star of David on the chest. In contrast to the hesitant and tired-looking stance of his predecessor, this athlete stands proud on a flat surface, his right hand held aloft with what seems to be a sheaf of wheat. The symbol of the Maccabiah can be seen above him, in precise symmetry. A strong light emerges from behind, as from a bright sun. The strips of text, on top of each other, create the image of an athletes' podium; this is a podium designed for winners. The Hebrew language has been all but removed in the later poster, except to indicate the name of the competition: Maccabiah.

National pride

It is no coincidence that the name of the city of Tel Aviv features prominently in the posters of the first two Maccabiah Games; organizers sought to stress the connection between the events and the city. Although it took a certain amount of persuasion, in the end the fathers of the first Hebrew city sponsored the event. Documents from that period reveal the shared interest of organizers of the Maccabiah and of leaders of the young city to foster national pride and support independence.

The Third Maccabiah Games, scheduled to take place in 1938, were canceled because of events in Europe and also due to unrest among local Arabs, angered at the expression given to Zionist nationalist ambitions in the first two Maccabiahs. Hence, the Third Maccabiah was held only in 1950, after the establishment of the State of Israel. About 800 athletes from 19 countries participated in this event, the first held after the Holocaust. It began with a festive opening at the Kfar Hamaccabiah village, which had been built in Ramat Gan.

The poster for the Third Maccabiah is entirely different from the two previous ones. In the center is an athlete doing a handstand on what is part of the Maccabi symbol (the Star of David). The bulging muscles of the athlete's arms are emphasized. In the background is part of the globe. Whether by coincidence or not, what is portrayed here could be called the 'Jewish globe': North and South America, and alongside them Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The athlete is in the center of this globe, which is surrounded by classical victory wreaths. Tel Aviv's name does not appear here, nor does that of the State of Israel, and, as opposed to the blue-and-white colors of the first two posters, shades of brown, red and gray were used here.

It is obvious that the basis for the existence of the Maccabiah - as an event highlighting the aspirations of the Jewish People for a national home - would change in light of the establishment of the State of Israel. The athlete standing in the center of the 1950 Maccabiah poster is therefore a prototype of normalcy: a Jewish athlete who engages in sports in the presence of the Jewish people, but also within the broader context of the greater, global world of sports.

Subsequent Maccabiah posters used various combinations of the same basic elements, including the image of the athlete, the symbol of the Maccabi movement, the stadium, the globe and the flags of the participating countries. The posters for the Ninth to the 16th Maccabiah Games (with the exception of the 11th) were all the work of artist and graphic designer Dan Reisinger, and done in an abstract style, but they too preserved most of the abovementioned elements. It is interesting to note that throughout the years, when the figure of the athlete appears on these posters, it is always a male figure. In that sense the Zionist movement, which considered itself revolutionary, remained remarkably conservative in spirit. Thus, the figure often featured in the Maccabiah posters represents an old-fashioned man, although his strong arms are meant to distinguish him from the Diaspora Jew and to mark him as a new man.

The poster for this year's 18th Maccabiah Games, opening at the Maccabiah Stadium in Ramat Gan on July 13 and lasting for 10 days, was designed by Giraffe Visual Communications and bears a graphic image combining an athlete with the Maccabi symbol. One may also see it as an expression of the traditional longing of the organizers of the First Maccabiah: to create an identity between the athlete and the national movement that shapes his character.

Maccabiah poster.Credit: XXXX
Maccabiah poster.
Maccabiah poster.
Maccabiah poster.
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Maccabiah poster.Credit: XXXXX
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Maccabiah poster.Credit: XXXX
Maccabiah posters



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