How an Ethos of 'Muscular Judaism' Went Wrong

The advent of the so-called Jewish Olympics was a continuation of the Zionist vision of a physically and spiritually strong nation. Sadly, the Tel Aviv team embodies the negative aspects of that concept

Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann
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American-Israeli basketball player for Maccabi Tel Aviv, John DiBartolomeo.
American-Israeli basketball player for Maccabi Tel Aviv, John DiBartolomeo.Credit: Sharon Bokov
Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann

One of the common – and mistaken – myths about the Jews is the claim that they did not excel at sports. Zionist leader Max Nordau, in his famous 1900 article about “muscular Judaism” (Muskeljudentum), a concept he coined in a speech at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, played on this myth to promote the vision of a new Jew: the Zionist with physical might that would also bring spiritual strength.

But the truth is that Jews engaged in sports long before the Zionist era, mainly in Western and Central Europe and in the United States. Daniel Mendoza was the British boxing champion in the late 18th century – over 100 years before the First Zionist Congress – and was considered the first famous boxer in the world. Two years before Nordau’s speech in Basel, Jews won no fewer than 13 medals, nine of them gold, in the first modern-day Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896. Representing Hungary, Austria and Germany these medal-winners made their marks in major events including gymnastics, swimming and cycling.

The men's 100 metres final of the third Maccabia, held at the Ramat Gan stadium, central Israel, in 1950.Credit: Teddy Brauner / GPO

This wasn’t an exceptional or one-time achievement. We often talk about the impressive proportion of Nobel Prize laureates who are Jewish, certainly in the sciences, relative to their share of the world’s population, but the number of medals won by Jewish athletes in the Olympic Games is greater than their proportion of the population.

As someone who grew up and was educated in Budapest, and resided in Berlin and Paris, Nordau was probably aware that Jews are also athletes. He may even have known some. His general perception of Jews was not mistaken, and his words were aimed at the masses of them in Eastern Europe, where the Zionist movement flourished, and where Jews tended to be more religious, more galuti – i.e., with the Diaspora mentality – and didn’t engage much in sports.

The idea of combining study with sports, work with physical activity and bodily strength with mental resilience, and harnessing all that to build the Jewish national movement, was certainly not promoted for reasons of public relations alone. It was a genuine zeitgeist. Jewish labor and the redemption of the land probably contributed more than other factors to creation of the antithesis of the image of the Diaspora Jew, but that’s already another subject. Whatever the case, Nordau laid the foundations of a different concept.

Israeli professional basketball player for Maccabi Tel Aviv, Omri Moshe Casspi, center, during a game against Fenerbahçe.Credit: Nir Keidar

The next stage in the evolution of the Jewish athlete was the Maccabiah, the “Jewish Olympics.” It was not Jews’ lack of success in sports in the early 20th century that led to its establishment: The opposite was the case. Russian-born Yosef Yekutieli, the most important sports impresario in the history of the Land of Israel, who dreamed up and implemented the idea of the Maccabiah, was 15 years old (and a soccer player for Maccabi Tel Aviv – he’d immigrated to Palestine three years beforehand) when he read about the Olympic Games in Stockholm, in 1912. He discovered that many of the winners were Jews; they won seven gold and eight silver medals, in fencing and gymnastics, swimming and athletics. They came from Hungary, Austria, Belgium and Great Britain, the United States and Denmark.

In the early 1920s, Yekutieli began to envision the participation of residents of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, in the Olympic Games – but that door was closed to anyone who wasn’t the citizen of an independent country. He thus decided to launch a “Jewish Olympics,” an idea that German journalist Fritz Abraham had actually thought of even earlier.

The establishment of the worldwide Maccabi sports organization in 1921 – which evolved from a collection of local Maccabi clubs, first created in 1912 – was a fulfillment of Nordau’s vision. The second-century B.C.E. figure of Judah Maccabee inspired the name of the association: Although he had not been an athlete, he was a legendary warrior with an image diametrically opposed to that of the Diaspora Jew.

Incidentally, there are those who say the acronym formed by the first (Hebrew) letters of a verse of the Song of the Sea in the Book of Exodus was the inspiration behind the name “Judah Maccabee” – but that is apparently another myth: It’s been claimed that the verse “Mi Kamokha Ba’elim Adonai” (“Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods”) appeared on the symbol of the Hasmoneans, but that claim was first made in the 10th century C.E., over 1,000 years after the Hasmonean era. In fact, Judah Maccabee should be translated as “Judah the Hammer,” since Maccabee derives from the Aramaic maqebba, meaning hammer of war).

Tal Brody holding the European cup after Maccabi Tel Aviv beat Mobilgirgi Varese, Tel Aviv 1977. Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO

Power that corrupts

The concept behind Maccabi, despite an ostensible connection to the Jewish sources, is not related to belief in God per se, but to the physical and spiritual strength of man. The fact that a huge number of Jews today identifies the word Maccabi with the above-mentioned biblical verse is somewhat sad. The Maccabi idea envisioned by Nordau was supposed to involve creation of a new Jew: one engaging in sports, but in matters of the spirit as well.

The first Maccabiah, also called the Maccabiada, was held in 1932 in Palestine. Three years earlier Yekutieli had explained his vision of the event: “At this gathering we will not discuss only physicality; spirituality must also occupy a respectable place. At the Maccabiada we should hold competitions in arts, literature and organize exhibitions in all the areas of creativity of the Jewish people – all these will add glory and benefit to our gathering.”

Although his dream was not fully realized, the first Maccabiahs were a big success and achieved another objective: Jewish immigration to Palestine. With the founding of the state, Maccabi sports clubs chalked up handsome achievements, which were not inferior to those of Hapoel, which were greater in number, supported by the Histadrut Labor Federation and enjoyed political support from most of the public.

The success of Maccabi clubs in various branches of sport led to an increase of public affection for them, but also to an intoxication with power. There is nothing more corrupt than power combined with success – and sports are no different. The ultimate example of that in Israel is the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team. In the name of the desire to win at any cost, the “Maccabism” of Maccabi Tel Aviv has morphed from a symbol of success in sports to a pejorative term for arrogant behavior, trampling of rivals, absolute domination – and occasionally genuinely swinish capitalism.

When in 1965 Tal Brody – a gifted basketball player who gave up a big career in the United States in order to immigrate to Israel, after the Maccabiah Games that year – joined Maccabi Tel Aviv, it was symbolic of everything good in the Maccabi ideal.

A decade after Brody’s arrival, the team was already the unquestioned leader of Israeli basketball, and it played well in European championships as well. Success made Maccabi think of itself as undefeatable – not only on the court, but in its conduct off the court as well. It began signing on players right and left. Even if they weren’t necessary, the main thing was that they wouldn’t wear the uniform of the rivals. People claimed that the team was giving a bad name to Israeli basketball, which it represents and from which it evolved, in order to pursue its own narrow interests.

File photo: Maccabi Tel Aviv players celebrate their victory at the end of their Euroleague 2014 3rd place Final Four basketball game against Real Madrid, May 18, 2014.Credit: AFP

Shimon Mizrahi, chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club since 1969 – an Israeli Prize laureate and a man with much to his credit – is the new Maccabist symbol. “If there’s a difference of 10 [points], increase it to 20, but don’t stop. If it’s 20, try to increase the gap to 30,” he demanded of his players in 2014, in an aggressive speech before a game against their long-time rival, Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Just like the changes that have taken place over the decades in Zionist ideology – we are no longer a just society, we are no longer a socialist society, and let’s not forget to mention the occupation over another nation – Mizrahi’s fighting words embodied an ethos that went wrong. The original conception behind the Maccabi idea was to build a different, better society, but it has shrunk to humiliating its rivals. Similarly, a considerable part of the public in Israel now sees life here, even on the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a neo-liberal economic environment, in the same distorted Maccabist manner.

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