The Maccabiah Games, which came to a close last week, are an endeavor that has long outlived its original purpose but has since gone on to find a new one.
The Maccabi movement was the institutional extension of what Zionist thinker Max Nordau dubbed “Muscular Judaism” more than 120 years ago, a belief that in order for the Jewish people to build themselves up as a nation they must first build up their biceps, triceps and deltoids.
In Nordau’s mind, Jews at that time were weaklings, knock-kneed yeshiva students with hunched backs and thick glasses — not the type of people needed to reestablish a national homeland. A so-called “new Jew” would be needed for that, so he pined for an imagined history in which the Jews were an athletic folk.
“Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men… For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character… Our new muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas in order to take part in competition and to pit themselves against the highly trained Hellenistic athletes,” Nordau said in a speech at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.
To skip over and criminally simplify a fascinating history — including that of a Turkish Jewish fencing club formed years before Nordau’s speech — that address led to the creation of several Jewish athletic clubs around the world and eventually the formation of the Maccabi World Union in 1921 and the first Maccabiah Games 90 years ago.
The organizer of those games, Yosef Yekutieli, had high hopes for them.
“They were meant to present to the world the developing culture of the Jewish body,” wrote Haim Kaufman, a professor at Israel’s Wingate Institute, in a 2013 article about the Maccabiah Games.
Yekutieli had other hopes as well — that holding the games in then-Mandatory Palestine would reinforce the centrality of the land of Israel and the concept of Jewish peoplehood; that the competitors were “not just part of their home countries but were part of the Jewish people as a whole.”
These latter goals have remained firmly in place for the games — indeed organizers tout the large number of athletes who immigrate to Israel immediately following the event — but that primary focus of Nordau’s “Muscular Judaism” has long since fallen by the wayside.
“These days it’s less about sports, more about culture and social gathering of Jews from around the world,” Reichman University professor Yair Galily told The Times of Israel. “Muscular Judaism: it’s lost its meaning throughout the years.”
From Muscular Judaism to Birthright
Instead, the games have become more of an athletic Birthright trip for most participants, albeit extremely far from a free ride. (Athletes from the US and Canada, for instance, shelled out roughly $8,000 each for their chance to compete.)
“They’re an opportunity to meet other Jews, maybe even marry one, and to show that there’s another place to be if things go sideways where you are from,” Galily said.
Indeed, most of the Maccabiah events attended by The Times of Israel over its two weeks were exceedingly chummy, with members of various delegations mixing and chatting with one another.
Save for a few sports — basketball, soccer, volleyball — in which there is sufficient interest in nearly every country that all of the teams are at a somewhat similar level, most of the events included a broad range of participants, from amateurs to Olympic athletes, meaning that many of the matches were not particularly competitive.
While some athletes, particularly the amateurs, expressed frustration at the imbalance — imagine spending the money to fly halfway around the world only to be absolutely slaughtered in your matches by people who competed in the Tokyo Olympics last year — it also meant that the actual games themselves were somewhat beside the point.
“In a few events, the games are really competitive,” Galiliy said. “But most of the events are social gatherings with games on the side.”
Michael Fiss of Geneva, Switzerland, for example, was one of the few badminton players who traveled to Israel for the games. He and his partner Shirly Nahmani were both soundly defeated by far, far more experienced players.
“Maccabiah is more about relaxed fun than it is for real competition,” Fiss told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the badminton tournament, shortly after losing a doubles match. “It was a chance to do a tournament, to judge my level, and to learn from other players.”
But while the gameplay may not necessarily be the focus, the Maccabiah Games themselves are nevertheless a major sports event, one of the largest in the world and certainly the largest single sports event in the country.
The numbers are indeed impressive — thousands of participants from around the world — though somewhat overinflated by the organizers. In promotional material, the Maccabiah Games claims that “over 10,000 athletes” were participating in the games. (For comparison, roughly 11,000 athletes took part in the pre-pandemic 2016 Rio Olympics.) However, the number of actual competitors is 3,000. The other roughly 7,000 people are coaches, staff and even family members of athletes.
“Given the huge amount of people who are coming from around the world and the number who are involved in Israel — this is an achievement. Despite the pandemic, despite the economics. These numbers are really impressive,” Galily said.
The games have also had staying power, continuing almost unabated for 90 years. (Only during World War II were they outright canceled; this year’s edition was meant to be held last year but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
Shayna Weiss, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said that the Maccabiah Games had indeed shifted away from their initial ideological purpose.
“It is Birthright-esque now,” Weiss said, quickly clarifying: “I don’t say that as criticism.”
Though there are still negative stereotypes in circulation about Jews and sports, in many ways, she said, these “new Jew” concepts have taken root. Decades of high-profile Jewish athletes — from Sandy Koufax and Mark Spitz to Omri Casspi and Julian Edelman — have seen to that.
“There are still bad jokes about Jews not playing sports, about Jews owning the team and not playing on the team,” Weiss said. “So I don’t think you can take [that aspect] away entirely but I don’t think it’s as dominant as it once was.”
Jewish country, big country, little country
The Maccabiah Games do not necessarily mean the same thing to every participant. For the participants from Israel — by far the largest delegation — the event means one thing; to those coming from countries with large Jewish communities like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia it means something else; and to those coming from countries with small Jewish communities, sometimes extremely small Jewish communities, it means something different entirely.
“There’s a difference between the delegations from big countries like the US, UK, Australia, who are coming to show their strength and their ties with Israeli society, and the small communities from around the world,” Galily said.
“For them, this is a pinnacle of their international activity. They are looking to keep connections with Israel and with more established countries, and the Maccabiah is a great opportunity to do so,” he said.
For those smaller Jewish communities, particularly poor ones from Central Asia and parts of South America, the Maccabiah offered a chance to interact with large numbers of other Jews, to see themselves as part of a larger, global people.
Though Israel is still the official home of the Maccabi World Union and was once the beating heart of the Jewish sports movement, for Israelis the Maccabiah Games have lost much of their meaning entirely.
Instead of representing one of the pinnacles of Jewish peoplehood, the games have come to be seen as second-rate — the “Jewish Olympics,” not the real Olympics.
“People became cynical about the Maccabiah. People look at it as ridiculous, that the athletic level of the games isn’t high. It’s something that lost its glory,” said Galily.
Galily, who researches the intersection of sports and society, said the current Israeli view of the Maccabiah is representative of a broader shift away from the collective ideologies of the past toward a more selfish worldview.
“There has been a shift in Israeli society from being very Zionist to being very cynical. We are in the next phase of Zionism. Israeli society became self-centered and individualistic. Collective idealism lost its way,” he said.
Kaufman, one of the other major researchers of the Maccabi movement, noted this as well in his article back in 2013: “The public in Israel lost interest in the event, and the Maccabiah Games garner only slight coverage in Israeli media. Other than the opening ceremony, which is broadcast live, there are almost no broadcasts or reports about the sports events taking place in the Maccabiah Games, and the competitions that are held in the Maccabiah are mostly watched by only a very small number of fans.”
Indeed this was the case this year as well, with most of the coverage in the Israeli press ending after the opening ceremony (Joe Biden was there! The lights went out!) and most events having extremely small audiences, save for a few of the high-profile games, like ice hockey and basketball.
Galily, who did watch some Maccabiah squash matches, said this was in part not due to Israeli disinterest but for a more practical reason: The games are held during most Israelis’ summer vacations.
“A lot of people are not here — they’re out of the country right now,” he said.
Who won? Israel, of course
For all their disinterest, however, Israelis were far and away the biggest winners of this year’s Maccabiah Games, with the Israeli delegation winning a total of 1,468 medals: 592 gold medals, 472 silver, and 404 bronze. This is over five times more medals than the second-place delegation, the United States, which won 87 gold medals, 109 silver, and 78 bronze, and over 15 times more than the third-place delegation, Argentina, which won 35 gold, 25 silver, and 33 bronze.
However, this is not nearly necessarily as impressive as it sounds for Israel, as it is less a function of the athleticism of the Israeli competitors and more due to the fact that Israelis participated in nearly every single sport — with sometimes more than one Israeli athlete taking part in a single competition — whereas even large foreign delegations didn’t bring individuals and teams for each of the dozens of events that were held over the course of the games.
This was especially true for track and field, which was itself made up of 28 individual events. In many of these, more than half of the competitors were part of the Israeli delegation, giving Israel — by sheer numbers alone — a greater chance at taking home a medal. The hammer throw competition for men, for instance, only had Israeli competitors, guaranteeing the Israeli delegation three medals, regardless of performance. (Victor Zagynayko took the gold with a 51.5-meter throw.)
The United States took home the gold in basketball for both men and women. The Uruguay men’s team and the American women’s team each took the gold in soccer. The USA men’s team took gold in ice hockey, demolishing the Canadians in the final. The Canadian women’s team returned the favor in the women’s ice hockey tournament, which was held for the first time ever this year, trouncing the Americans 6-2.
This is, of course, only an exceedingly partial list of the results of the dozens of events and thousands of individual competitions that were held over the Maccabiah Games. A full list can be found on the games’ website.
By now, nearly all the delegations have returned to their home countries. But based on previous years’ statistics, a few hundred participants will likely be back soon to stay (organizers say roughly five percent immigrate to Israel in the months following the games).
No world records were shattered in the Maccabiah Games, but a few friendships were made — maybe even a few romances. And in three years’ time, the Maccabiah Games will return once again.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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