Opinion |

The Zionist Success Story of the Maccabiah Games Is More Relevant Than Ever

The Maccabiah has always been more than a sporting event, and it still has a major role to play in Jewish life

Amir Gissin
Amir Gissin
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South African athletes attend the opening of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem earlier this month.
South African athletes attend the opening of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem earlier this month.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP
Amir Gissin
Amir Gissin

Over 350,000 Israelis tuned in to watch the opening ceremony of this year's Maccabiah Games – a proud sporting event that this year celebrates its 21st edition, dating all the way back to 1932. A recent op-ed in this paper by Ido Rakovsky correctly identified the pivotal role this showpiece event has played in Israeli, Zionist and Diaspora Jewish history over the last century, and the way this role has evolved over the years. Unfortunately, the piece then regrettably draws entirely the wrong conclusions regarding this remarkable Zionist success story and its continued relevance and importance in the global Jewish cultural calendar.

It is somewhat curious to argue irrelevance in a year in which the Maccabiah Games have successfully attracted over 10,000 athletes from all over the world, despite the unprecedented challenges associated with international travel and sporting events. It's not just about the quantity either: Mr. Rakovsky seems to simultaneously hold the view that athletes are scheduling their attendance at the Maccabiah Games between European and world championships, and yet at the same time arguing that the Games fail to attract top sporting talent – a contradiction that is not easily squared. Leading Jewish athletes from Israel and around the world continue to make time in their strict training and competition schedules for the chance to visit Israel and participate in the Games. Among this year's athletes are five-time All-NBA Team basketball legend Amar'e Stoudemire, South African rugby player Hacjivah Dayimani – part of the Stormers team that won this year's elite URC competition – and Boston Blades ice hockey player Chelsey Goldberg, to name but a few.

The fact remains that the Maccabiah Games are and always have been far more than a sporting event. It is also not just about connecting Diaspora communities to Israel—it is also a unique opportunity to connect Diaspora Jewish communities to each other. Sport is unique for the way it brings people together, and the Maccabiah is no different. This year's competitors include a Venezuelan long-distance runner, a Swiss chess player, a Kazakh weightlifter and a Colombian cyclist, alongside so many more talented sportspeople spanning the length and breadth of the Jewish world and reflecting its rich tapestry. For the athletes involved, the Maccabiah is a life-changing opportunity to represent their communities and their countries, as well as to rekindle old ties and to forge new ones.

Israeli President Herzog, U.S. President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid attend the Maccabiah opening ceremony earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The symbolic status and appeal of the Maccabiah Games remains as strong today as it ever was – as evidenced by the presence of U.S. President Joe Biden at this year's opening ceremony. President Biden recognized what Mr. Rakovsky was unfortunately unable to – that the Maccabiah Games remain as much a symbol of dedication, ability and sporting prowess and a joyous celebration of Jewish life today as it always has been. At the same time, Mr. Rakovsky's claim that "including non-Jewish athletes in the Games […] only emphasizes the anachronism of holding the Games" is ahistorical and misguided. Israel's place as a land that "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex" is a fundamental part of the Zionist vision, enshrined in the founding document of the State of Israel.

Even setting aside the immense emotional and cultural value associated with the Games in favor of the purely transactional argument that Mr. Rakovsky puts forward regarding the associated marketing and advertising expenses, he fails to take into account the direct benefits to Israeli tourism worth over 100 million dollars in accommodation, transportation, tourist attractions, restaurants and more.

The Maccabiah Games remain one of the largest global sporting events, and a source of great anticipation and emotion for Jewish communities around the world. The competition continues to evolve and thrive, adding new sporting disciplines, age categories and venues, and connecting new generations to the remarkable Jewish and Zionist story. We at Maccabi are hugely proud of the continued success of this unique event and of the athletes and support staff who inspire us and motivate us to look to the future with boundless confidence and enthusiasm.

Amir Gissin is the incoming CEO of Maccabi World Union.

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