Opinion

Rogel Alpher Is Wrong. The Maccabiah Games Aren't Racist

Or: How Rogel Alpher turned a celebration of Jewish heritage and culture, with participants from over 75 countries, into his own personal hatefest

Israel vs Australia women's netball at the 2013 Maccabiah Games
Nir Keidar

The Maccabiah Games are a celebration of Jewish heritage and culture. And yes, they are exclusionary, in the same sense that not every athlete may compete in the Paralympics or the Francophone Games (or the Women’s Islamic Games). That does not make the Maccabiah Games racist. That would imply that other demographic populations would not be allowed to participate.

"The Maccabiah has nothing to do with competing for athletic excellence," Rogel Alpher writes ("Boycott the Maccabiah Games"). "It’s a demonstration of pure ultranationalism" If that were truly the case, how were more than 9,000 athletes and support staff from more than 75 different nations able to come to Israel for the 2013 games? Why bother keeping track of points, scores, or medals? "Not every enterprise has to be global, open to participants from every state," he continues. But the Maccabiah does not exclude anyone on the basis of nationality. We can’t jump back and forth between xenophobia and racism to suit our premises.

Mr. Alpher recalls that Hitler left the stadium during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin rather than have to shake the hand of Jesse Owens, the gold-medal winning African-American track and field star. "Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or President Reuven Rivlin won’t need to leave the stadium when a black American sprinter wins a gold medal, for the simple reason that the Jesse Owenses of today aren’t allowed to compete in the Maccabiah."

That is simply not true; if a black American sprinter were Jewish, he would certainly be welcome. The same holds if an athlete came from China or Mexico or any other nation. (In fact, strictly speaking, one does not even have to be Jewish if he or she is a citizen of Israel. Arab Israelis enjoy the same opportunity to represent.)

Under 'normal' circumstances - that is, games not hosted by the Nazis -religion has never prevented anyone from competing in the Olympics. As we have moved deeper into the 20th century and beyond, athletes are no longer excluded from participation on the basis of race.

"The Maccabiah Games in its current format is not a Jewish victory over the Holocaust," Mr. Alpher writes and he is correct, since the first set of games took place in 1932, several years before the Holocaust (they might have started prior to that had the organizing factions been able to get their act together). They were a victory over the Deutsche Turnerschaft movement, the German gymnastic clubs that had strict quotas over the number of Jewish athletes they accepted.

The Maccabiah was never meant as an answer to the Olympics; they were the brainchild of Joseph Yekutieli, a fervent young Zionist who envisioned a gathering of Jewish sportsmen and women after he attended the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm at the age of 15.

The opening ceremony of the 1946 Maccabiah Games, Tel Aviv
Pinni Hans

The Maccabiah was used as a tool for aliyah, with prime ministers and other officials imploring the visiting athletes to move to Israel. Such pleas were a staple at opening and closing ceremonies in the 1950s and 60s and indeed provided the Jewish state with high-profile heroes such as Tal Brody, who gave up a promising career in the National Basketball Association and went on to became not only the leader of the first Israeli team to win the prestigious European Basketball Championship in 1977, but Israel’s Goodwill Ambassador; and Michael Oren, a two-time medalist in rowing, who was born in New Jersey but became Israel’s Ambassador to the United States.

It may be true - thankfully - that we have progressed enough that we might not need the Maccabiah Games as we once did. But they have moved beyond mere athletics to include an immersive educational and cultural component. Many of the participants I interviewed for my book expressed surprise at how deeply they were affected when they arrived in the land of the ancestors for the first time, to experience what they had only read about or been taught in religious classes. If that were the only thing they gained from the experience, dayenu, it would have been enough.

Ron Kaplan is the former sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News and author of three books including The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games. He blogs about Jews and sports at KaplansKorner.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RonKaplanNJ