Hope, Sadness and Frustration at the 1950 Maccabiah

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

Many firsts were achieved at the 19th Maccabiah, which holds its closing ceremony Tuesday, namely for the many new countries debuting this year. 1950 was also a year of Maccabiah firsts, but much more fundamental – that year's "Jewish Olympics" were the first to take place in the newly-established State of Israel, and the first to take place after the Holocaust. Haaretz's archives reveal that preparations for this third Maccabiah were tinged with post-Shoah hope and grief, frustration at broken government promises, and the good old right-left divide.

Some 1,300 athletes from 28 countries took part in the second Maccabiah 15 years earlier. Known as the "Aliyah Olympics," many participants stayed in Palestine after the 1935 games rather than return to an increasingly dangerous Europe. The third games, originally set for 1938, were postponed amid developments in Europe, the Arab Revolt in Palestine, and the British Mandate authorities' concerns over illegal immigration.

Emerging from the shadows of the Holocaust, the ten-day long games in 1950 were a symbol of renewal for the fledging Jewish state. A brand new stadium was built in Ramat Gan, and the Tel Aviv stadium built for the first games in 1932 was being refurbished for the event. Athletes would compete in nine cities across the country, including Eilat, where the champion volleyball teams would be flown at the end of the games.

A lit torch symbolizing "renewal of the Maccabiah after years of suffering and the extermination of a large portion of world Jewry" would be carried by a group of athletes to traditional graves of the Maccabim near Modi'in (46 years before new city would be established) on the night before the opening of the Games, and then all the way to Ramat Gan for the opening ceremony. There, with Israel's first president, Chaim Weitzmann, and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in attendance, 12 cannons would be fired and 500 doves released in front of an expected crowd of 35,000.

Preparations went full-steam ahead, right up to the very last minute. In the week before the games, 300 workers toiled day and night, including the evening after the Yom Kippur fast, to put the finishing touches to the new stadium. Three days before the September 27 opening, they were "nearing the finish line as winners in their race against time."

In the event, some 800 athletes from nearly 20 countries participated. Delegations were staying at the Maccabiah Village, located in an army base in the Tel Aviv area. Despite their worries about living conditions in the young state, the athletes were generously hosted. Meat was on the menu every day, and there was an on-site swimming pool for "entertainment and training." As more delegations arrived, however, the village became somewhat crowded; one unspecified delegation had to sleep in the shade outside one of the huts.

Morale among the athletes was lowered not by overcrowding, but by the arrival of the American delegation, Haaretz reported. Non-American athletes were discouraged by the brightly colored uniforms, expensive equipment and sporting prowess of the largest delegation at the games.

Money emerged as a critical issue. While Maccabi had scraped together funds, and there were contributions from bodies such as the Tel Aviv municipality, the Israeli government had broken earlier promises to fund the games, Haaretz said.

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A photo clipping from Haaretz of President Weizmann opening the Maccabiah Games in September 1950.Credit: Haaretz archive
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A Haaretz article ahead of the 1950 Maccabiah opening ceremony.Credit: Haaretz archive
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A photograph from Haaretz of the 1950 opening ceremony.Credit: Haaretz archive

These broken promises and the government's failure to understand the importance of the "Jewish Olympics" were the subject of a number of Haaretz editorials. After the loss of so many in the Holocaust, and after so many had paid the ultimate price in the 1948 War of Independence, sport was essential for the Jewish nation's youth, a September 23 article argued. "This war is not over, but the state is already fulfilling important roles," it said. "Those at the head of the state will be seen as sinful if they do not show a full understanding of the value of the physical fitness of youth, and don't promise the sporting movement a secure development and existence."

The next day, Haaretz published another editorial lamenting the government's empty promises. The third Maccabiah was being organized under challenging circumstances, it said. The European Diaspora was almost wiped out; no Maccabim would be coming from behind the Iron Curtain; Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese Jews were not able to leave their countries; and the German Jews arriving for the games were the last vestige of refugees after the war.

"Here in Israel, too, the situation has changed," the article continued. "Maccabiah organizers thought they would get help, and not just in talk and promises, while they took upon themselves the burden of renewing . the Maccabiah Games." The writer argued that Maccabiah organizers had trusted the government too much only to be disappointed. "It should be stated publicly, and ahead of the opening of the games, that the government did not understand the importance of the first Maccabiah in the independent state of Israel," the article declared.

For the first time, non-Maccabi members would compete in the games. Hinting at the continuing disputes between right and left in the world of Jewish sports organizations, the article said that if the government had invested as much in the games as in the participation of members of Hapoel, "the Jewish world would know to appreciate its help."

Hapoel, the then socialist sports association, had split from Maccabi in the 1920s because it saw the body as representing the interests of employers over workers.

After the games were over, Haaretz accused the Maccabiah's detractors on the left of trying to downplay the games' success. Another editorial argued that although these critics were quick to point out that only 18 out of the 31 countries that originally signed up participated in the end, and that fewer tourists came than expected, Maccabi had proved itself by reviving the games. In fact, the article said, the fourth games were already planned for 1953.

A photo clipping from Haaretz of President Weizmann opening the Maccabiah Games in September 1950.Credit: Haaretz archive

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