Reimagining the Jew as more physical was an important tenet of Zionism. The movement’s leaders hoped the “new Jew” in Palestine would become more rugged than the stereotypical shtetl or ghetto Jew of the Diaspora, where traditionally brain was prized above brawn.
As such, Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl’s deputy, called for the creation of “Jewry of muscle” at the 1898 Zionist Congress. As any gym rat knows, the best way to build muscle is exercise. But in much of late-nineteenth century Europe, Jews were not allowed to become members of sports clubs and were forbidden from taking part in official athletic competitions. So Zionists established their own clubs such as the Israelite Gymnastics Association in Constantinople, Turkey. Many of these sports associations, which appeared across Europe, took the name of Maccabi after the leader of the Jewish revolt told in the story of Hanukkah. Soon Jews established Maccabi clubs beyond Europe, including in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria—and, of course, Palestine.
Palestine was then home to a relatively small number of committed Zionists, who included in their number Yosef Yekutieli whose family had emigrated from Russia when he was only nine years old. He returned to Europe a visitor at the age of 15 to watch the Olympic games in Stockholm, whereupon he returned to Palestine with an idea—a gathering of Jewish athletes from around the world in Palestine to compete in a Jewish version of the Olympic games. Taking the name of the Jewish-Zionist sports clubs, Yekutieli thought these games should be known as the “Maccabiyon.”
It took twenty years from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics until the first Maccabiah Games, but in time Yekutieli’s vision came to be.
An important development occurred in 1921, when the various Maccabi clubs around the world united as part of the new Maccabi World Union. As an adult, Yekutieli worked for the Maccabi organization—tirelessly arranging meetings with and petitions and appeals to various government officials so that his dream might become reality. Rivka Rabinowitz an elderly “movement historian” at the Maccabi Museum at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan recalled to Haaretz how as a child she overheard discussions on how to organize the first Maccabiah. “Someone was sent to America to collect money,” she said. “He returned with $2,000 dollars, which was a lot of money then.”
Finally, in 1929, the Maccabi movement had enough support to accept Yekutieli’s proposal. They would have their first games in 1932, on the 1800th anniversary of the Bar Kokhba revolt, when Jews in Judaea rose up against their colonial overlords, the Romans. Of course, in 1932, Palestine was a colony of that age’s version of the Roman Empire—part of the British Empire, which covered more than a quarter of the globe.
Hard as it was to get the go-ahead for there Maccabiah games, the organizers now faced an even trickier task. How would they bring all these international Jewish athletes from Maccabi clubs around the world to Palestine?
The short answer is Jews on motorbikes.
The organizers had a bold solution. In 1930 they dispatched a group of Maccabi motorcyclists from the pre-state Yishuv in Palestine to Antwerp. The riders were to journey across Europe on a promotional drive for the games, drumming up support and participation as they went. The trip was such a success that a second propaganda tour took place the following year. This time, motorcyclists traveled from Palestine through Sinai, Cairo, Alexandria, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany and France until they finally made it to London. Again, along the way, they promoted the Maccabi movement and its inaugural games.
The motorcyclists’ efforts were not in vain. Without them it is unlikely the games would have had enough participants. Thanks to them, the Jewish Olympics, as they became known, opened on March 28, 1932 with some 390 athletes from 14 countries competing in 16 events.
Perhaps even more impressive than participation in the events was the number of spectators who attended. Most had likely seen poster throughout Tel Aviv that stated, “A chance that wont return before the Second Maccabiah—come see all the famous champions.” Come they did, and not just from Tel Aviv. Ariel Sharon remembered attended as a very young boy, traveling down from his moshav in a horse and wagon.
The event’s opening ceremony featured some 2,500 gymnasts performing. The ceremony was considered a spectacular success—but that it even took place qualified as such with the hurriedly built Maccabi Stadium in Tel Aviv only finished the day before the games.
“I was 11 and a half years old and in the Maccabi youth movement,” one attendee, Dr. Israel Peled, recalled. “They had us meet in Moshavot Square in Tel Aviv and told us: ‘We are marching from here to the mouth of the Yarkon river, to Maccabiah Stadium,’” remembered the man who went on to become mayor of Ramat Gan. “Thousands of people stood on both sides. It was a tiny country then and it felt like an enormous, important event.”
Astride a white horse, Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, led a convoy of riders who struggled through the quicksand on the way to the stadium. When they finally arrived, 120 doves, ten representing each of the 12 tribes of Israel, were released into the spring sky.
Archival footage from the time shows the scene. Tel Aviv is still a desert. Cars and motorbikes make their way through the sand. Young men, primarily, in blazers and berets wave flags and wave to the camera. Inside the new stadium, processions of male and female athletes wearing white march around the track bearing the flags of their nations and that of the Zionist movement, the blue and white that would later become the flag of the State of Israel.
Although the Maccabiah lacked much equipment, competition did take place in 16 events. The 10,000-meter race took place on the streets of Tel Aviv along the beach on a course that was approximately one-third sand. Without an official swimming pool, the swimming events and water polo took place port of Haifa before a crowd spectating from floating rafts.
There was a note of controversy when agitators against the British distributed leaflets against the British Mandate of Palestine, which greatly upset the British police, but otherwise could not detract form the success of the occasion.
In the events, the American contingent did particularly well in track and field competitions, while Czechs and Austrians excelled in swimming. Egyptian fighters succeeded in fencing and boxing while competitors from Germany had notable performances in handball and hockey. The most successful team, however, were the Maccabians from Poland, which was then home to the world’s largest Jewish population, who did especially well in football, boxing and water polo. Poland won first place overall, while the team from Palestine came in fifth.
The biggest winner, however, was Zionist movement. As a result of the games, the Jewish Yishuv, the pre-state community of Zionists building a home in their ancestral homeland, had its first stadium and a newly found reputation as the place for international Jewish sports. The Zionist movement had untied international Jewish sporting clubs around an event in the land they yearned as their own. And Yosef Yekutieli had finally realized his childhood dream. It may have taken him twenty years but he did it. And it was fortunate he was patient for almost fifty years after the game, in 1979, he was awarded the Israel prize for his contribution to sport in the Jewish State.
“After the first Maccabiah Games they realized that it wasn’t the only one,” Dr. Peled recalled. “Others would follow.” The same could be said for the Zionist pioneers who made it happen.