History and Milestones
The struggle for Jewish acceptance into non Jewish society that was characteristic between 1900 and 1950, is now largely a thing of the past. Today, few barriers between Jews and non-Jews in Western democracies remain.
A limiting factor was the general environment. Most Jews were forced to live in small over-crowded and confining ghettoes, with little light or air-places hardly conducive to physical activity. There were from time to time exceptions, especially in those communities where Jews were allowed greater freedom to live wherever they preferred and to participate in society at large. As closer relations with their non-Jewish neighbours developed, the younger generation became drawn into the cultural and sporting activities around them. We know that Jews participated in sports competition in Weissenfeld in 1368, in Augsburg in 1470 and in Rome in 1460.
The real changes began only in the 19th century in central Europe when German and Austro-Hungarian Jews were invited to join the ranks of Germany’s Gymnastic Movement – the “Deutsche Turnerschaft” – as well as other sports leagues being developed at the time. Their hosts were well repaid for some of their new Jewish members earned them great honour. Two gymnasts, Alex and Felix Flaton, won golden laurels for the Germans at the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Four years later, a gymnast named Genserowski earned further honours for Germany at the second Games in Paris.
At the end of the 19th century, the pogroms and ruthless destruction of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe inspired the Jewish leadership to establish and promote physical education among young Jews so that they would be able to defend their communities in times of danger. In order to develop principles of good citizenship and a sense of kinship with their fellow Jews, the organizers also introduced cultural and educational aspects to the program. At first, the physical training consisted only of gymnastics, but it slowly expanded to include a variety of bodybuilding and competitive sports.
From Eastern Europe, the movement spread to other communities. In 1895, Constantinople opened its first all-Jewish Gymnastics Club. Bulgaria followed next. Finally, in 1898, Central Europe founded the “Bar Kochba Berlin” and, two years later, this club presented its first gymnastics exhibition. The initiative to form more clubs also derived from a newly derived anti Semitism that forced Jewish members to resign from the German clubs at the time.
The Jewish clubs formed a loose association known as the Judische Turnerschaft. The group decided to issue a regular paper, Judische Turnzeitung, whose first edition appeared in Berlin in 1900. (That monthly journal appeared regularly without interruption until 1921 when, with the founding of Maccabi World Union, it was replaced by Der Makkabi, which published continuously until 1938).
A decision was taken at the fifth “Gymnastics Day” in Berlin, calling for the development of all sports under the aegis of the Judische Turnerschaft. This brought clubs as Hakoah Wien, Hagibor Prague and Maccabi Warsaw, to name a few, into the arena of national and international sport.
In 1927, during the 12th Zionist Congress in Carlsbad, the delegates of the Judische Turnerschaft decided to set up anew central organization, the Maccabi World Union. In the constitution of this new organization, its aims were clearly defined: “to foster physical education, the belief in the Jewish heritage and the Jewish nation, and to work actively for the rebuilding of our own country and for the preservation of our people.”
The very name Maccabi pointed to the new Zionist orientation of the world union. The saga of the original Maccabi celebrated at Chanukah, signified the courageous fight, thousands of years before, for freedom of conscience and religion, for autonomy and sovereignty – the very goals toward which modern Zionism strove. It was our own Chanukah story. A new emblem showed four Hebrew letters which spelled Maccabi in the form of a Jewish star.
Between 1918 and 1939, Maccabi, particularly in Europe, reached its zenith. Maccabi’s athletes proved themselves of high standards and capable of great successes. They belonged to the elite in their countries and represented their nations in international events and at the Olympic Games. European Maccabi Games with athletic achievements at an international level were held regularly. At the same time, the ideals of Maccabi became firmly rooted in many Latin American countries, in the Far East, the Middle East, Australia, and in Africa. This was due, to a great extent, to Jewish immigration to these areas from Eastern and Central Europe, then under the influence of Communism and Nazism. During this period, European Maccabi Games were scheduled on a regular basis in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, as well as in other cities.
In the mid-thirties, European Maccabi began to see its decline. The clubs were banned in all territories which came under the influence of Soviet Russia. Hitler’s rise in 1933 meant the closure of Germany’s clubs, many of whose members later perished in the Holocaust. The Second World War brought the entire movement in Europe to a grinding halt. Yet it was precisely in the thirties that Maccabi enjoyed two of its most outstanding events, – the 1932 and 1935 Maccabiah Games in Eretz Israel. At the 1929 Maccabi World Union Congress at Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, Yosef Yekutiel, representing Maccabi Eretz Israel, suggested the sponsorship of regular sports tournaments for Jewish athletes in Israel. The idea excited the delegates and in 1932, Tel Aviv, then a town of 50,000, hosted the first such event.
The Maccabiah was opened with a parade through the streets of Tel Aviv led by Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor. Some 390 athletes from 14 countries participated in these games, 69 of them from Moslem countries. To this was added 1,500 gymnasts who participated in the opening ceremony with an impressive performance of mass gymnastics. This Maccabiah was a wonderful demonstration of youth, strength, and vibrancy, greatly encouraging the Jewish people and infusing them with a sense of confidence at the very time when dark clouds were sowing seeds of despondency and fear in Europe. In 1935, an equally successful event was again sponsored, with 1,700 athletes competing.
Those first two Maccabiah Games are often referred to as an “Aliyah Games” since many of the sportsmen and their escorts remained in Palestine because of the anti Semitism which was sweeping Europe. The third Maccabiah planned for 1938, was postponed due to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, which put an end to Maccabi activities in nearly all of the European countries.
After the Second World War, the European Clubs started their activities with very little to work with. Today, the European Maccabi Movement consists of 30 countries which include the former Soviet Union and Turkey which recently celebrated their 100th Anniversary of their first Maccabi Club. All the European countries and clubs run daily sports activities as well as special cultural and educational programs in their Jewish communities.
The Israel Era
When the third Maccabiah reconvened in 1950, there were only 800 participants, reflecting the catastrophe that had befallen the Jewish people. On the other hand, they were being held in an independent Jewish state. The renewed games demonstrated the strength of the movement and its power of survival. This third Maccabiah marked another major development, for the Maccabi World Union had decided to invite Jewish sportsmen of every nationality, regardless of whether they were members of Maccabi Clubs or not. The call went out to all Jews interested in sports to join the first “World Jewish Sports Festival” to be held on the soil of Israel. This change in policy has, over the years, attached an ever increasing number of Jewish competitors from all over the world.
The fourth Maccabiah Games were held in 1953 when 890 athletes from 12 countries participated with the tradition of lighting and running the torch from Modi’in (the birthplace of Judah Maccabee) was commenced. Since then, the Maccabiot have been staged regularly every four years. By 1985, the 12th Maccabiah games brought together over 4,000 young Jewish athletes to compete in Israel. Moreover, the standards of the Maccabiah competitions have improved so vastly over the decade, that by 1960, the Maccabi World Union was recognized by the International Olympic Committee as “an international sports federation of Olympic standing.” The only other worlds sports body so honoured was the International Students’ Sports Organization.
The late David Ben-Gurion once summarized the value of the games as follows:
“Maccabi is without a doubt one of the most important offshoots of the Zionist movement. Its importance is indicated in its infusion of life by bolstering the physical state of the Jewish people, weakened by centuries of exile and dispersion. Jews returning to their homeland and those born there must possess physical stamina, just as they must possess spiritual and intellectual vigour in science and technology; our existence in our ancestral home requires physical might no less than intellectual excellence.”
**Note: The information posted was acquired from Maccabi World Union and Maccabi Canada historical records and may not be completely accurate.