Tensions and Boycotts: The Maccabiah Then and Now

Haaretz archives reveal that the first Maccabiah, in 1932, had its fair share of disputes, ethnic tensions and exaggerated confidence.

Quarrels between right and left, threats of boycott, Arab-Jewish tensions and a religious-secular divide. Sound like the Israel of 2013? In fact, the reference is to Haaretz's coverage of the weeks leading up to the first-ever Maccabiah Games in 1932, a period as beset by tensions and challenges as today.

Just under two months before the games began in 1932, the World Maccabi Union, organizer of the event, confidently predicted the participation of 1,500 athletes from 18 countries, along with 300 tourists. The stadium being built especially for the games was still not fully ready, however, and the Maccabiah's budget was 500 Palestine Pounds in the red.

Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff was set to open the event riding a white horse and leading a procession into the stadium, which was still under construction at the time. In the week before the games, Haaretz announced that Dizengoff had donated a silver cup to the competition and that another was on its way across the Atlantic, a gift from New York's Morning Journal. The Jerusalem-based Palestine Bulletin also reported that 120 doves, 10 for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, would be released at the start of the games.

As the big day approached, more and more athletes from around the world confirmed their participation. They included an Austrian "European heavyweight boxing champion," 50 Maccabi members from Beirut and, bizarrely, a "Polish writer." Tel Aviv residents who had volunteered to host the visiting sportspeople were urged by Haaretz, not once but twice, to make sure their apartments were "tidy and ready" for the all-important guests. 

In the event, 400 athletes from 18 countries participated in the games. 

'Division on the Hebrew sports field'

Untidy accommodation was the least of the challenges facing the first Maccabiah. Just weeks before the games began, the Hapoel sports association announced that it would not be participating. Founded in 1926 by socialists who had left Maccabi on the grounds that it looked out for the interests of employers over the working class, Hapoel accused Maccabi of monopolizing the event and excluding Hapoel. It called on all athletes to "stand together for the Hebrew nation," in the "spirit of the workers movement in Eretz Israel."

Responding two days later in the pages of Haaretz, Maccabi in Palestine raised its own ideological banner. "Our federation doesn't differentiate between workers and employers, and in vain different groups have tried to define Maccabi as a bourgeois or right-wing movement. The number of worker members [we have] is bigger in number than the members of Hapoel, and they are the main opponents of division [.] on the Hebrew sports field."

The Maccabi World Union, it stated, had been around for 30 years and comprised some 100,000 members in 30 countries. "Our federation creates an opportunity for Hebrew youth who want to give a shoulder to [the building of Eretz Israel]. Your path will be clear to you! Join Maccabi!"

Outside the sports arena, Jewish residents of Tel Aviv and Jaffa raised their own concerns regarding the Maccabiah. In a letter published in Haaretz on February 26, the Tel Aviv Jaffa Hebrew Community Committee pledged the humble sum of three Palestine Pounds to the games, as a "token of our appreciation of the importance of the endeavor." There was one caveat, however. The donation would only be made if the Maccabiah did not desecrate the Sabbath or lead in any way to the "spiritual decline" of the Jews.

Maccabiah Secretary Yosef Yekutiel was quick to assure the concerned residents that no such thing would happen. A few weeks later, Haaretz announced that the event organizers would hold a prayer service in Tel Aviv's Great Synagogue "on the Sabbath of the Maccabiah."

Intended to attract new Jewish immigrants to Palestine, the games met with opposition from the region's Arab population. The Jaffa-based daily Al-Jamiya Al-Islamiya, described by Haaretz as "the mouthpiece of the Mufti" [the cleric in charge of Jerusalem's Islamic holy places], urged Arabs to boycott the games, despite their being open to local non-Jews.

"There is no doubt that all the Arab nation in Eretz Israel and outside of it must completely boycott the Zionist Maccabiah," the paper wrote, according an Haaretz editorial. Participation, it continued, might "anger the Arabs and Muslims in the country." The newspaper said it had learned that some Arab groups intended competing, an eventuality that would force it to publish their names, in order to "teach them a lesson about respecting the feelings of the nation."

A week later, Al-Jamiya Al-Islamiya outed the Jerusalem Christian Youth Association as one of the groups that intended to participate in the Maccabiah. It expressed the hope that the association's Arab members would not agree to take part.

Alona Ferber
Daniel Tchetchik