Arab Athletes at the Maccabiah: Going for Gold, Seeking Recognition

While the Maccabiah charter states the Games are open 'to all Israeli citizens’ as well as 'to Jews from around the world,’ Arab participation is marginal and often fraught with ambivalent feelings.

Husam Aruk , who lives in the Arab regional council of Yefiah close to Nazareth, turned 21 in February. Despite his youth, he has been part of the demanding world of gymnastics for 15 years, starting when he enrolled at age 6 in a class offered at a community center near his home. Aruk has entered countless competitions over the course of his life, but when asked to name his favorite events, the Maccabiah Games is one of his first choices.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s a major event,” he says, “and this year I intend to focus on it alone.” The fact that the Maccabiah Games has been dubbed the Jewish Olympics and presents itself as “a vehicle to bring the Jewish world to Israel [and] the trigger to Jewish life,” according to a press release on its website, does not arouse particular discomfort in Aruk, a Muslim, who plans to take part in the event for the third consecutive time.

“As an athlete I try not to deal with racist questions,” Aruk tells Haaretz by phone.

“I have never felt the need to ask myself what I am. I have a long history with Jews, and I’ve been living and training with them from the day I chose the sport of gymnastics. All my friends are Jewish and they certainly know who I am.”

Aruk says that even though he did not encounter many Arab-Israeli athletes in the two Maccabiahs in which he competed (2005 and 2009), he was never made to feel like an outsider. Nor did he encounter offensive behavior on the part of rival athletes. The crowd always rooted for him even though he is “a non-Jew,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve even thought about this issue,” Aruk admits. His parents do not object to his participating in the Jewish Olympics and encourage him to carry on in his chosen path.

The Arab-Israeli track champion Doa Sliman Khatib has somewhat different memories than Aruk. After winning medals in each of the Maccabiahs she competed in (1997, 2005, 2009), the athlete says she met with “a hostile attitude from a number of media people” who had difficulty accepting the fact that she had won.

Online readers’ comments from those years were also less than kind to the famous runner from Nazareth: “Who brought this Fatma to the Maccabiah,” reads one response dated July 11, 2005. “There is no room for Arabs to participate in the Maccabiah Games. The Maccabiah Games constitute one of the important symbols for strengthening the bond and solidarity between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. Arabs’ brutal takeover of the Maccabiah Games tarnishes this important and beautiful tradition.” Another anonymous comment says: “The Maccabiah is meant solely for the Jewish people. It is inconceivable that they [the Arabs] rob us of this too.”

Sliman, who is well aware of the negative spirit that sometimes surrounds the participation of Arab-Israelis in the Maccabiah, would like to emphasize that she never felt any discomfort during the event itself. “There’s always a very special and supportive atmosphere there. You feel it is an international sporting event and the treatment by the foreign and local athletes is in keeping with that,” she says.

“I believe it should be viewed as a sporting event and nothing else. I prefer not to think about its background and, in my opinion, politics should not be involved in it,” she adds. Asked whether the Maccabiah ought to be open to foreigners of other religions, Sliman declines to answer.

Sparse data

According to the charter published on the event’s website, “[p]articipation in the 19th Maccabiah Competitions is open to all Israeli citizens and to Jewish athletes from all over the world.” However, the organizers of this year’s Games cannot say when exactly Arab citizens of Israel began taking part.

Staff members at the archives in Kfar Hamaccabiah say such a data analysis has never been done, although one of the most veteran employees will tell you that as early as the second Maccabiah in 1935, the British High Commissioner ordered the inclusion of Arab residents of Mandatory Palestine. A summary of the archive’s documents also reveals that Muslim boxers from Egypt competed in the first Maccabiah, held in 1932.

“We are actually a sort of Jewish Olympics and insist that participants be Jews,” says Maccabiah chairman Amir Peled, conceding what is known already. “But the competition must be open to all residents of Israel for the simple reason that the host country cannot create discrimination. Our only condition is that the participants be Israeli citizens and meet the required criteria.”

From the sparse material that was collected in the archives and transferred in an orderly manner to computer files, we can ascertain, after reviewing the names of 4,738 participants in the 17th and 18th Maccabiah Games, that close to 30 Arab-Israeli athletes competed in each tournament. The most popular sports among Arab athletes were karate, soccer, athletics and swimming.

Data about the number of Arab-Israelis who will compete in the current Maccabiah has yet to be produced, and it is highly doubtful anyone will take the trouble to do so. “Their rate of participation in the Maccabiah is proportional to their participation in Israeli sports,” Peled explains. “We’re talking about a minuscule and marginal number, and not because we prevent this ideologically, but rather because these are the numbers that come to us from the sports associations.”

Keeping mum

Evidence of the negligible rate of Arab-Israeli participation in the Jewish Olympics may be found in the words of the former swimmer Samira Giram. When she took part in the last Maccabiah, she says she did not encounter a single Arab-Israeli athlete, aside from one other swimmer. After two Maccabiahs, Aruk swears he has yet to run into Arab-Israelis at Kfar Hamaccabiah or the Games themselves.

Others say the same thing.

A Muslim athlete who competed in the past in the Maccabiah, and asked not to be named, theorized that the dearth of Arab-Israeli participants stems from, among other things, the objection of prominent figures in the Arab community to the “Jewish Zionist” concept of the Games. Despite repeated requests from Haaretz to Arab members of Knesset Ahmed Tibi and Hanin Zuabi for a comment on this matter, no response was ever received.

The MKs were not the only ones to keep mum. Many Arab-Israeli athletes declined being interviewed for this article, claiming that “nothing good for us is likely to come of it,” as one of them wrote in response to a request from Haaretz. The soccer clubs Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Netanya, which registered several Arab youth players for the Maccabiah, elegantly palmed off a number of requests to interview their players, and likewise Maccabiah spokesman Amir Gilad responded with an awkwardness uncharacteristic of the event’s aggressive public relations campaign (the slogan: “Faster, higher, stronger”). It was difficult to avoid the feeling that no one wanted to touch this hot-potato issue.

“I will continue to participate in the Maccabiah,” declares Aruk, who will be marching in the opening ceremony at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. “Now that I know the idea that stands behind the event’s existence, I think it will lift me even higher. If I succeed, it might draw more eyes toward the Arab community and push more young people to engage in sports.”

For Aruk, at least, the Maccabiah is “like a world championship – an event you can be proud of.” Even if not everyone can participate in it. 

Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On