The Jewish War on Soccer in British Mandatory Palestine

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A soccer game at Kibbutz Na'an, in 1935.
A soccer game in Kibbutz Na'an, in 1935.Credit: Beitmuna

Between the two World Wars, another sort of war was being waged in the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel, against a small, round enemy. “Somebody kicks the ball. Our kick must kick it far away from him!,” a 1926 article in the Davar newspaper summarized the rules of the game. Why did the Zionists of the pre-State era fight against soccer? The answer is revealed in a new study on the early history of athletic competition in the Yishuv, which traces the (doomed-from-the-start) attempt by gymnastics devotees to knock the threatening ball out of the bounds of British Mandatory Palestine.

The article, published by historian Ofer Idels in the new edition of the journal “Israel: Studies in Zionism and the State of Israel - History, Society, Culture,” details various measures taken by soccer opponents in their effort to be rid of the sport. On the agenda: a wide range of intimidation tactics, citing health, psychological, aesthetic and even patriotic reasons. “These competitions lead to divisiveness and hostility,” Haaretz warned in 1928. Writer Yitzhak Damiel, author of the short story “Hannale’s Shabbat Dress,” warned in 1936 that the popular game was a direct continuation of the barbaric gladiators in the Roman Colosseum and “a passing young fashion that captures everyone’s heart.”

A 1924 article in the Palestine Daily Mail headlined “Soccer and youth – Soccer’s influence on teens’ developing health,” claimed that “the soccer craze has gone beyond every boundary and border to where it may endanger our children’s health.” The article quoted a Dr. David Barashi as saying, “The sport is linked to extremism” and that “it affects the child’s psyche more than anything.” He said that the “demon” of soccer matches “seduces and accustoms [the child] to extremism and crudeness.” He added, “Therefore, schools should oppose this sport from an educational standpoint as well.”

In 1937, Davar described the experience on the pitch as a “killing field” and decried the “plague of the sport in our land.” “How sad it is to watch, week after week, in nearly every match between the Hebrew teams, the same wild hatred and belligerence that could endanger human life,” journalist Shimon Samet wrote eight years before that.

An Arab soccer team waits for the Jewish team for a game in Nazareth, 1948.Credit: GPO

To understand where all this hostility came from, one must go back to the end of World War I, when soccer began to get popular as a competitive sport in the Jewish Yishuv, due in part to the influence of the British Army, which conquered the land from the Turks. Soccer in the country predated the British arrival, but it had been a game without any clear rules, scores or time limits – very different from the version we know today.

Once it began attracting local fans as a real competitive sport, soccer opponents arose, too – mainly devotees of gymnastics and physical education. They saw soccer as something foreign and threatening that represented a different culture – a competitive consumer culture that was morally degenerate, one that harmed the body’s natural harmony which physical education teachers worked to develop.

“Of all the enlightened peoples, the English were different regarding physical education, with everything done by them through competition… There was a fierce war for some time between the advocates of the sport and advocates of exercise,” Zvi Nashri, the legendary physical education teacher, whom Idels calls “the unofficial intellectual of Hebrew physical education culture,” said in 1940.

The war on soccer was destined to fail. A member of Maccabi wrote in 1922 that, “compared to our fans who stream in large numbers to watch the soccer matches, we unfortunately do not find the same desire to support the Gymnastics Association,” which just a few years earlier had been considered beautiful and exciting but had come to be perceived as banal and boring.

Israeli students play soccer in what is today Habima Square, in 1959.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

Another reason for soccer’s success, it seems, was that it drew new fans who previously had no interest in sports. Davar published in 1926 the story of a man described as “a known hater of sports who never attends any sports competitions.” One day, the article recounted, he was spotted in the stands at a soccer match. Asked what he was doing there, he said: “I heard that the owner of the factory where I work – you’ve never met such a bastard – would be a referee at the match today. Where and when would I have such a golden opportunity to curse him out, if not here?”

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