Sports Minister Limor Livnat talks the talk but apparently doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to making sports a priority in Israeli culture. Last Sunday, a new exhibit highlighting the stories of 18 great Jewish athletes opened at Beth Hatefutsoth Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, yet the minister gave the opening ceremony a miss.
“We’ve been trying to invite her for some time,” says Adi Rubenstein, the creator and curator of the exhibit, entitled The Game of Their Lives.
“The sports minister speaks all the time about the importance of sport in education and culture,” Rubinstein continues. “But to come to an opening wasn’t important enough for her. It didn’t really bother me, but when you host an exhibit of this proportion, you would expect the sports minister to show up for the opening and make a speech. She didn’t come, and maybe it’s indicative of the importance of sports in Israeli culture.”
Rubenstein spent three years finding documentation, photographs and stories about the athletes, who played their sports between the 18th and 20th centuries. “It’s a fascinating journey that started when I was studying history in university, and there was nothing in the syllabus about sports,” he notes.
In contrast, Rubenstein says he had seen exhibits on sports teams and former athletes in several, recalling how he thus found a slew of Jewish greats.
“They won dozens of Olympic medals; but as a child in Israel, I didn’t learn anything about them,” he says. “They taught us here that Jews are weak and aren’t made for sports. So, we’re not surprised the country has few sporting achievements. I wanted to bust this myth and show Israelis that by cultivating sport, you can make enormous achievements.”
Most of the heroes in the exhibit were athletes with added value,
Rubenstein adds. Neils Bohr, a Nobel prize winner in physics, was a pioneer of European soccer and a member of the Danish national team at the beginning of the 20th century, according to Rubenstein, who notes that his brother, Harald Bohr, was better known for being on the team because he was a star.
Some Jews engendered social change, explains the curator. “Abe Saperstein, who founded the Harlem Globetrotters, is among the pioneers of integration who helped get blacks into the NBA,” he says. “Boxers Benny Leonard and Barney Ross had a lot of influence on changing the image of Jews in the United States and also contributed to Zionist goals.”
Rubenstein says the Jewish world used to understand that it could integrate through sports. However, recent generations have witnessed a decline in achievements by Jewish athletes throughout the world because they belong to the upper-middle class in many countries. “They are already integrated into society without needing to excel at sports,” he says.
Israelis were left out of the exhibit because he decided to focus on the pre-state period, when sports played a different role, Rubenstein says, noting that while sporting achievements used to be a source of pride for Jews, Israel has not kept up this tradition.
“It’s primarily because there is almost no sports culture to speak of here,” he bemoans. Rubenstein says that every child who is a sports lover in the United States or Europe knows the legends, reading books about them, watching movies and visiting museum exhibits. However, he says, there is nothing comparable in Israel. “How many sports columns dedicate space to culture? How many sports books are published?” he wonders out loud, noting that the only such publication in Israel closed down.
He admits Israelis love watching sports and are among the leaders in sports tourism. “But where is the sports culture? Where is sports education? Where are history studies?” he asks.
That’s why, he says, it was important to have the exhibit: “You have to start somewhere,” he comments.