Maccabiah Games: From Jewish Sports Event to Birthright Project

For decades, the Jewish games served as an opportunity for promoting sport in Israel, and instilling Zionist values. The time has come to end them in a dignified manner

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US athletes attend the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, last week.
US athletes attend the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, last week.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky
Ido Rakovsky

Over the next few weeks, a strong scent of Zionism will be in the air in Israel. The 21st World Maccabiah Games were officially opened on Thursday at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, in an opening ceremony that was promised to be “impressive,” “huge” and “spectacular.” Once, the Maccabiah was an event the whole country watched. Today, most Israelis aren’t even aware that it still exists.

This year, the opening ceremony started off with one big glitch: It was interrupted by a 10-minute power cut and the lights went out as the athletes marched into the stadium, stopping the ceremony, but then went ahead as planned with only about half the lights working – with U.S. President Joe Biden, President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Yair Lapid in the stands. Biden also met with the U.S. delegation to the games.

For Israeli athletes and fans, the Maccabiah, aka the “Jewish Olympics,” served for decades as an opportunity to experience an international sports competition – something that was once almost impossible. The Maccabiah was the main sporting event in an era in which international competitions were a rare commodity for Israeli athletes and the local audience. But as the years passed, and as Israel opened up to the world and became the largest Jewish center in the world – economically, demographically, culturally and in sport – the Maccabiah Games have lost a bit of their luster.

U.S. President Joe Biden jokes while posing with U.S. athletes at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, last week.Credit: Ronen Zvulun /AP

The Maccabiah originally had four main goals, and they were held for the first time in 1932, in what was then Mandatory Palestine. The first goal was to bring back Maccabi, the first international Jewish sports organization, to the center of the sporting and political arena in Israel, particularly after the Hapoel sports association founded by the Histadrut labor federation became an established rival.

The second goal was to fulfill the “muscular Judaism” ideal promoted by Max Nordau, combining the Zionist dream with sports. The third goal was to encourage immigration to Israel through sports, and the fourth goal was to put the Land of Israel at the center of the Zionist movement, which until the mid-1930s was concentrated in London. In other words, the Maccabiah Games helped transformed the Zionist movement from a diaspora movement into a one based in the Land of Israel.

During the first few decades of the games, the Maccabiah symbolized the freedom of the Jewish people to participate in sport and compete among themselves within Israel in an international framework. At first, this was because Jews were banned from participating in organized sports events in Europe – something that significantly contributed the enormous success of the second Maccabiah in 1935.

The Maccabiah Games in 1950, in Ramat Gan, central Israel.Credit: Teddy Brauner / GPO

After Israel was founded, the event was intended to prove that the place of the Jewish people was in Israel. The games also helped raise money for building sports facilities, such as the former national stadium in Ramat Gan, and by bringing to Israel a handful of international stars – whether to live here or just for a visit – such as basketball player Tal Brody and swimmer Mark Spitz.

A participant with the word USA painted on her face attends the Maccabiah opening ceremony in Jerusalem, last week.Credit: Nir Keidar

The change came in 1997, when the image of the Maccabiah Games suffered a terrible blow when the collapse of a pedestrian bridge killed four and injured 69 Australian athletes. The disaster remains a stain that may never be possible to erase – though perhaps it never should be forgotten. A long list of failures and mistakes led to the disaster, and afterward the games continued almost as usual. This is when, in many ways for Israel, the historic role of the Maccabiah came to an end.

Today, unlike 25 years ago, the games are no longer needed – not in terms of politics, Zionism, or sports. Israel has existed as a state for 74 years, and the success of the Zionist movement is no longer questioned. Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel can do so by filling out the forms on the internet, and Israeli athletes can go to competitions and games overseas – and do so all the time.

In light of the progress and pluralism that have been achieved, the idea of a “Jewish Olympics” has become less legitimate over the years – even in Israel. Including non-Jewish athletes in the games, even if it only happens on the margins, only emphasizes the anachronism of holding the games.

The historical purpose of the Maccabiah Games is no longer relevant, and the same goes for the games themselves, which have become a sort of Birthright program with a sporty touch. The fact that Diaspora Jews set the tone now is a wonderful change in its own right, but as a result, Israel’s influence over the Maccabiah has shrunk. As someone who worked for eight years in various frameworks to strengthen ties with North American Jewry, I can say with certainty that they will get by just fine even without the Maccabiah.

US President Joe Biden, accompanied by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Yair Lapid, greets the crowd during the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, last week.Credit: MANDEL NGAN - AFP

The Israeli athletes no longer need the Maccabiah to compete in the international arena either, and scheduling the games between the European championships, world championships and other competitions in various sports only makes it more difficult for scheduling training and competitions for athletes and staff.

When sports channels are broadcasting every minor – and major – sporting event from all over the globe, even the biggest sports fans are not yearning to watch competitions on the level of the Maccabiah. They are not particularly high-level events, and for years they have lacked the biggest stars from outside of Israel. Today, it is doubtful whether Israel really needs the Maccabiah – certainly not on this scale and with an investment of millions in marketing and advertising it, as well as in the logistics and organization of the games.

Israeli rescue workers evacuate members of the Australian Jewish athletic team from a bridge at the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv ,1997.Credit: JEREMY FELDMAN / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Maccabiah will be covered by the media, even in Israel, because after all, it is impossible to ignore such an event happening in your country – and certainly if an Israeli record or two are broken. But the games will not have the impact they once did. In many ways, this is unfortunate, but the Maccabiah Games no longer contribute anything to the advancement of sport in Israel. They have contributed enough. Now, they just need to come to a dignified end – possibly in a most impressive ceremony, if you really insist.

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