In the same year in which we marked the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and (West) Germany, the European Maccabi Games are, for the first time, taking place in Germany. On Tuesday, some 2,000 participants from 20 countries, including Israel, will march in Berlin’s Olympic Park. In the organizers’ words, the choice sends “a strong message of peace, tolerance and against racism and anti-Semitism.”
At the very site where this showcase Jewish demonstration takes place, a very different showcase demonstration took place in 1936: Nazi Berlin hosted the Olympics. The Olympic Stadium, built in the early 20th century, underwent a face-lift in honor of that event, and the whole environment was brought into line with the spirit of the regime’s ideology and esthetic values.
Physical expanses were intertwined with symbolic ones, like the Langemarckhalle – which was built at the request of Adolf Hitler himself. Just a moment before the Games began, and a moment before white doves were released from the stadium as a symbol of peace, Hitler swore, in the presence of a handful of dignitaries, to take revenge for the humiliating defeat Germany suffered in the Battle of Langemark, in Belgium, at the start of World War I.
Under the guise of the brotherhood of sports, the nations of the world could close their eyes to the flags emblazoned with swastikas and the crowd giving the Hitler salute, and refrain from recognizing the true nature of the German regime. In those days of deceptive appearances, measures against the city’s Jews were indeed eased, but there’s no doubt their presence in the public square wasn’t greatly desired.
The Nazis attributed great importance to the external impression the 1936 event made. For the first time in the history of the Games, it was decided to begin them with a torch relay – something that has since become a tradition. The runners went from Greece to Berlin, thereby drawing a straight line between Classical Greece and the Germany of the Third Reich. The Olympic Games were meant to show the world that the Nazi regime was a political power that must be recognized, by providing an external reflection of the idealized Aryan figure, which was based, to a considerable extent, on the culture of the body.
To understand this, it’s necessary to return to Classical Greece, where athletics were at the heart of the perception of ideal beauty. Symmetry and a strong, muscular body were symbols of the harmony between body and soul. This perception gained a new interpretation during the Enlightenment. Hitler in turn saw Aryan Germans as a modern incarnation of the early Greeks, while the Jews, to him, represented the sick, ugly, distorted and unhealthy body.
In the 19th century, some Jews began benefiting from emancipation and the rights it brought with it. But in many senses, these rights remained purely theoretical. Cultural historian Sander L. Gilman stressed that despite their social mobility, Jews were seen as belonging to a racial category that couldn’t be changed, yet could be identified; the Judaism of the German Jew was seen as a fundamental given engraved in his body.
These ostensibly visible physical markers, spiced with the anti-Semitic theories that flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries, represented not just the Jew’s external appearance but also the “Jewish character,” whose salient characteristics were moral corruption, cunning and greed.
The integration of Judaism and sport isn’t common in Jewish history. In the late 19th century, though, Zionist organizations began to make use of the same rhetoric that fanned anti-Semitic theories and to adopt the culture of the body. They aspired to create a “new Jew” – the antithesis of that pale, weak, “exilic Jew,” the Torah scholar from the shtetl. The new Jew would be a muscular one, whose physical strength would make him the equal of his Aryan colleagues and enable him to survive the transition to his promised land and realize his national mission.
At the same time, because the International Olympic Committee refused to allow Jewish athletes to participate in the Games as representatives of a single independent entity, the idea arose of holding a “Jewish Olympics.”
There’s no doubt that the return of Jewish athletes to the physical and symbolic German space from which they were once excluded is significant. But 67 years after the establishment of the State of Israel and the realization of the Zionist dream, it’s worth considering the relevance of returning to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin under the banner of “the Jewish Olympics.” The Berlin stadium has never managed to sever itself completely from its Nazi ghosts.
If Israel wants to wage a courageous fight against anti-Semitism, it must stop emphasizing the physical markers of the Jewish body. As members of the third generation, we shouldn’t sever ourselves from history and the memory of the Holocaust. On the contrary, we should bear our Jewish identity proudly, out of recognition of our rich heritage.
An Olympics for Jews only is a problematic enterprise that contains an element of arrogance. If we cling to the past, we are granting ourselves too steep a discount, one that is no longer necessary.
If you decide to be among those watching the Maccabi Games this year, try to remember that it’s not just athletes competing in the Berlin stadium, but also, as in the past, physical practices that are seeking to justify and preserve their uniqueness.
The writer is a doctoral student at the Hebrew University’s DAAD Center for German Studies who specializes in post-1945 culture