By Bill Simons
Muscular Judaism and Zionism provided impetus for the birth of the Maccabiah Games, a Jewish Olympics of sorts. The first two Maccabiah were held in 1932 and 1935 in the former and future Jewish homeland, then part of the British Mandate of Palestine. World War II brought a hiatus to Maccabiah. Then, in 1950, the modern state of Israel hosted the return of Maccabiah and did so again in 1953. Subsequently, the festival took place quadrennially until the COVID pandemic necessitated delaying the 2021 Maccabiah for a year. The Maccabiah is open to Jewish athletes throughout the world, as well as to all Israelis regardless of religion or ethnicity. Israel is the permanent home to Maccabiah, the largest Jewish athletic gathering on the planet. The state of Israel, Jewish organizations globally, private philanthropy and the athletes themselves fund Maccabiah.
From July 14-26, approximately 10,000 athletes, coaches, staff and family entourages, representing over 60 countries, participated in the 21st Maccabiah, competing in 42 sports. The U.S. team was second in size only to Israel’s contingent. In addition to the premier open competitions, other events featured junior, senior and para-athletes. Although Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem was the epicenter, events were also held in Haifa, Netanya and other sites.
On July 14, the 21st Maccabiah Games provided the pivot for merging the substance and symbolism of the special U.S.-Israel relationship. In the morning, U.S. President Joe Biden and Israel Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed the historic Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, affirming that, “The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” Despite Israeli dissent to U.S. advocacy of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, American military aid to Israel will remain strong. President Isaac Herzog bestowed the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor on Biden, which the American president graciously termed “one of the greatest honors of my career.”
Then, in the evening, Biden attended a portion of the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Flanked by Herzog and Lapid, a smiling Biden doffed his U.S.A. cap and waved it enthusiastically to the appreciative Maccabiah crowd. An affirmative thumbs up followed. Biden is the first American president to attend Maccabiah.
In addition to his public support, Biden met privately with the U.S. Maccabiah team. Calling himself “an incredible supporter of Israel,” Biden told the American athletes, “What you’ve done is you’ve demonstrated to the world that you can do anything, and I’m so damn proud.” Reflecting the sentiments of his U.S. teammates, water polo participant Wasley Kaling responded to Biden’s warm support with “goosebumps.” By his presence, Biden elevated Maccabiah to a major international enterprise.
Notable athletes and coaches have participated in Maccabiah, including track and field’s Lillian Copeland; basketball’s Larry Brown, Ernie and Dan Grunfeld, David Blatt and Bruce Pearl; and swimmers Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg. Tal Brody made his first trip to Israel as a 1965 Maccabiah athlete, one of four players on the gold medal American basketball team drafted by the NBA. Experiencing a strong connection to Jewish history and culture, Brody made aliyah. In 1977, basketball legend Dolph Schayes coached an American squad led by his son, Dan, who went on to play 18 seasons in the NBA, to a gold medal; Dan subsequently returned to Israel as a Maccabiah coach. Olympic Gold Medalist Kerri Strug (1997) and MLB All-Star (and the new manager of the Israel national baseball team) Ian Kinsler (2022) carried torches at Maccabiah opening ceremonies. Most Maccabiah competitors, however, are not of Olympic caliber and do not purport to be. For many Maccabiah athletes, victory is in participation.
As in the past, Israel dominated individual and team competition, with the U.S. and Argentina a distant second and third respectively. Jewish athletes from across the globe, however, merited kudos for their dedication and performance. Nearly every athlete had a compelling backstory. For example, 36-year-old, 214-pound, Greco-Roman wrestler Moshe Klyman, an activist in his Teaneck, NJ, Orthodox shul and the father of three, overcame a shattered spine to participate in intercollegiate and international competition, always with the Star of David on his jersey.
Pageantry, pyrotechnics, song and dance, inspiring rhetoric, lighted torches and the march of proud, national delegations marked the opening of Maccabiah. Similar festivities closed the games. Even a 10-minute power failure that darkened the stadium could not dampen the fervor of spectators.
The Maccabiah is not without its critics. The games have had limited success in encouraging aliyah. The collapsed footbridge over the polluted Yarkon River during the 1997 Maccabiah opening ceremonies, claiming the lives of four Australian athletes and injuring 69, is not forgotten. The emphasis on music and other entertainments strikes some as more appropriate to a pop festival or a Birthright trip. Precarious finances, the idiosyncratic point system, ellipses in record keeping, transportation snafus, food imbroglios, limited media coverage and unevenness of athletic performance are perennial problems. Countries with small Jewish populations have difficulty fielding a complete or competitive national team. Writing in Haaretz on the cusp of the 2022 Maccabiah, Ido Rakovsky summoned bleak words: “Today, it is doubtful whether Israel really needs the Maccabiah.”
Rakovsky is wrong. Fostering links between Israel and the Diaspora, connecting Diaspora Jews with one another and heightening the Jewish consciousness of participants, the 2022 Maccabiah – the largest yet – combated antisemitic tropes about Jewish physical deficiencies and nurtured future leaders. Unlike the Olympics, a showcase for national competition, Maccabiah strengthens solidarity between competitors. At a juncture when Israel is riven by inconclusive, incessant national elections, Maccabiah is a unifying force, celebrating collective achievement. While the government of Israel treads cautiously concerning the savage Russian invasion of Ukraine, Jewish athletes from that brave and battered nation participated in Maccabiah, and philanthropic relief for Ukraine was encouraged at the Maccabiah. Transcending athletics, Maccabiah also provides a pivot for sports diplomacy. Ask Joe Biden.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.