When a Shy but Stubborn Israel First Went to the Olympics

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, Israel not only sent 26 athletes - it briefed them on the local Jewry, urged them to use Hebrew names and gave them tips on how to drink with the locals.

Four years after the state was founded, Israel was mired in a severe economic crisis that necessitated a harsh austerity regime. But national honor is one thing the young country refused to give up on, so in July 1952, it sent no fewer than 26 Israeli athletes to the Helsinki Summer Olympics - the one remembered today mainly thanks to the achievements of the runner nicknamed the "Czech Locomotive," Emil Zatopek.

It was the first Olympics for the Soviet Union, the first Olympics that allowed Germany and Japan to return to the family of nations after World War II, and the first Olympics in which Israel took part. One of the Israelis was a basketball player named Ralph Klein. He was one of the 10 delegation members who did not have Hebrew surnames, evidence of the limits to the government's power, already back then.

During the weeks preceding their departure, Foreign Ministry officials went to the trouble to draft instructions for the departing delegation members, including "a vigorous request" to set out for the Games with a Hebrew name. The paperwork that preceded the delegation's departure is stored in the Israel State Archives, where it was recently located by a scholar from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Dr. Natan Aridan.

The Foreign Ministry feared that the Israeli athletes might hurt the feelings of "Scandinavian Jewry," and warned: "If you are a free thinker and find yourself in an ultra-Orthodox home - show respect and understanding for the Jewish tradition. No harm will befall you. If a hat is to be worn in the house, at a ceremony or in the synagogue - wear a hat and do not make a face. Remember that your hosts do not know this is the first time in your life that you are wearing a hat."

Regarding the local population, the delegates were informed: "The Finns and Swedes love precision; if you are not on time for an interview, a game, a meal - it will be considered a grave insult ... If for example you cross the street before the lights have changed - you will offend the sense of order ingrained in the hearts of the passersby ... Do not imagine because of the aforementioned that these people have no sense of humor. Every people has its own humor, but in most cases it has been found that Northern humor is not the same as the Sabra-Jewish humor. The best advice to you is to refrain from wisecracks and pranks, though it will not be a tragedy if you make a temperate joke in a place of pleasure and at the right parties."

Under the heading "A few words about wine and luxuries," the Israelis were instructed: "The Swedes and the Finns, like all the peoples of the North, are lovers of drink, are used to drinking and know how to drink. Know your limit ... Drink with good judgment as an athlete, to heat the body but not the head. The girls in the place you are visiting are naturally welcoming. Do not be deceived into interpreting their manners improperly ... If you have money on you use it wisely. Buy your purchases in known stores, and there is no place for in you the black market."

As far as is known, "Scandinavian Jewry" did not complain about the Israelis' behavior, despite the foreign names most of them bore. Incidentally, the team did not bring home any medals.

‘Mad dictator’

Two weeks ago I commented here that David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin used to compare one another to Hitler. It is interesting that Hitler entered public discourse in pre-state Israel in the form of a political insult. Yisrael Medad, who publishes a blog on the website of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, claimed in a letter to Haaretz that Begin only called Ben-Gurion a “hooligan,” but did not compare him to Hitler.

Medad need not go far: A new book published by the same Menachem Begin Heritage Center (“From Altalena to Today;” in Hebrew, “Me’altelena ad hena,” edited by Avraham Diskin) quotes on page 23 an Order of the Day signed by “the commander” (i.e., Begin) that was distributed the day after the attack on the Altalena and in which Ben-Gurion is described as “a mad dictator.” The quotation as it appears in the book is partial. The document, from June 23, 1948, can be read on the website of the Jabotinsky Archive. Among other things, it says that Ben-Gurion’s “regime of tyranny” will set up “concentration camps.”

Anyone who talked, three years after the end of World War II, about a mad dictator who will set up concentration camps was speaking of Hitler, even if he did not mention him by name.

It was not the first time this happened: In March 1948 a warning article appeared in the newspaper Herut: “The emissaries of the Ben-Gurionite fascism will not shut us up ... A regime of bloody tyranny, of Gestapo torture shall not arise in Israel.”

Begin also spoke of Israeli “concentration camps” in his January 1952 speech in the Knesset denouncing the reparations agreement with Germany. In May 1963,
Begin accused Ben-Gurion of collaborating with Hitler and Himmler, and compared him also to Vidkun Quisling, who served as Norway’s prime minister under the German occupation government.

This was acceptable rhetoric as far back as the early 1930s. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whom Ben-Gurion called “Vladimir Hitler,” published an article against “the left’s takeover” of the Land of Israel that was headlined “The red swastika.” An unsigned piece in a 1942 issue of Herut bore the title “In the cellars of the leftist Gestapo.”

Begin created in the British Mandate era a rhetorical “triangle” described in a master’s thesis by Amir Peleg: The British helped the Germans annihilate the Jews, and Ben-Gurion helped the British, just as the leaders of the Judenrate, or Jewish councils, that the Nazis set up, helped them.

Thus was paved the road to the crematoria of Majdanek, Begin wrote.

Fritz Cohen