«NO. 290 CONSTRUCTING NATIONAL IDENTITY: THE MUSCULAR JEW VS THE PALESTINIAN UNDERDOG JAMES M. DORSEY S. RAJARATNAM SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES ...»
Jahn saw gymnastics and physical education at the time of the Napoleonic conquest of Prussia as a powerful tool to prepare for a liberation struggle. His German Gymnastics Movement (Deutsche Turnerschaft) established in 1811 expressed nationalist goals and emphasised strength, endurance, discipline, and movement in unison.40 He also saw his gymnastics, with its egalitarian lack of divisive class or regional characteristics, as a vehicle that would demonstrate what an ideal society would look like. Jahn believed that his gymnasts should be “chaste, pure, capable, fearless, truthful and ready to bear arms.”41 Jahn’s notion of a utopian society constituted fertile ground for representatives of all political stripes in the Middle East, including various trends within Zionism as well as Jews in Palestine and the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire, who saw militarisation of society as the way forward. In Zionist Palestine, Jahn’s thinking was to have its greatest impact on Beitar, the right-wing youth movement associated with revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s idea that evoked the Jews’ last stand against the Romans. Beitar was the Hebrew acronym for Joseph Trumpeldor Union, named after a one-armed Russian army officer who established the Zion Mule Corps that was defeated alongside the British and other Allied forces in 1916 by the Ottomans in the Battle of Gallipoli.
Beitar’s mission was to create the “New Jew” who would be able to build and defend the Jewish state.
Beitar differed from other Zionist factions in its insistence that Jews had to rely on themselves rather than on the British. Its philosophy was rooted in the Biblical story of God advising Joshua on the eve of the Israelite’s return to the Promised Land, which stated “Every place that you have set foot I have 42 given you” and “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord
Russian-born Yosef Yekutieli, an Ottoman conscript who became a physical educator in Palestine and a driving force in realising Herzl and Nordau’s vision, played a key role in the development of soccer and its emergence as a nationalist battle. Yekutieli defined his mission as “the development of Jewish culture — both physical and spiritual, and the presentation of that culture to the Jewish people and to the whole world; the development of Jewish sport in the world and the emphasis of the idea that Jewish sporting athletes were not just part of their home countries but were part of the Jewish diaspora. The emphasising of the fact that Eretz Yisrael is the centre of the Jewish world; and finally, 45 the strengthening of the Maccabi movement.” A centrist Zionist youth movement whose concept of sports was influenced by Jahn served Yekutieli’s purpose of tightening bonds between the Zionists in Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora and projecting Jews as a nation and Palestine as their homeland.
Maccabi grew out of the Union of Jewish Gymnastic Clubs founded at the Fourth Zionist Congress in
1903. It was named after the Maccabean revolt in the second century CE that was sparked by the creation of gymnasium in Jerusalem by the High Priest Jason. The gymnasium in which Jews competed nude and participated in pagan rituals provoked the Maccabeans’ anger because it amounted to idol worshipping in their view. Ironically, one of the first things the Maccabeans did after recapturing Jerusalem was to destroy the gymnasium.46 Yekutieli, the founder of the Palestine Football Association and the Palestine Olympic Committee, first dreamt of the Maccabiah as a 15year old. His inspiration was the 1912 Olympics. It took him 16 years to prepare a plan for the Jewish National Fund and another four to organise the first tournament.47
Following the Zionist Example
Palestinians, notwithstanding their hostility to Herzl, Nordau and Yekutieli effectively adopted their approach. “Obedience is one of the most important qualities a soldier on the battlefield must equip himself with. The war will not be fought without obedience. I urge everyone to obey whoever they are subordinate to, irrespective of whether you are players, spectators or referees, and to heed his every command, decision and restriction,” said the sports column of Filastin, a twice-weekly Christian
The employment of sports by Zionist leaders also served as a way to mould relations between the Jewish national movement and the British mandate authorities in Palestine who established civilian clubs as well as ones associated with various branches of the government, military and law enforcement. “Here it is, we are given the opportunity now that tens of thousands of British soldiers from various countries and classes happened to come to the country; some of which will play important roles in the British policy and it is up to us to influence them and make them our friends through friendly sport meetings; it is our duty to do so properly and on a full state scale,” Maccabi said 49 in a memo at the beginning of the Second World War.
The strategy of forging ties to British colonial personnel proved to be a double-edged sword. It created situations of both bonding and friction. At times, encounters between Jewish and British players would end up in brawls with Jews alleging discrimination by British referees. Moreover, tensions would rise at times of unpopular British measures like the publication of the White Book in 1930 that restricted Jewish immigration to and settlement of Palestine. Sir John Robert Chancellor, the High Commissioner at the time of the publication, suspended matches between Zionist and British soccer teams to evade the risk of violent eruptions.50 The Zionist effort nonetheless constituted the flip side of Astley Cooper’s vision of Commonwealth sports. Jewish clubs sought to forge alliances with their British counterparts in a bid to build ties to Brits who one day may be influential in formulating British policy and could help cement Palestine’s identity as a Jewish entity. Ties to the mandate authority, the Zionists hoped, would also ensure Jews of British protection in times of violent Palestinian resistance to Jewish settlement of the land. As a result, Zionist exploitation of the sport turned soccer into a barometer of British-Jewish relations against the backdrop of the controversial settlement of Palestine in the 1930s.
Relations between British and Jewish players and fans warmed and cooled depending on political circumstances. In good times, they further served, according to Palestinian historians, as cover for illegal Jewish immigration. The historians charged that such incidences occurred in 1932 and 1935
Defence under Cover of Sports Palestinian historian Issa al-Sifri warned in a book published in 1937 that “since 1924, the Zionists were trying to find new tricks for admitting more Jewish immigrants to the country; they have used smuggling and manipulation. They have pretended to submit to the restrictions of the immigration laws (while) transferring Jews to illegal resident status in Palestine by hiding them in the settlements.
54 The Maccabiah was one of the ways of achieving these tasks,” Al-Sifri wrote. Hapoel, the sports association with the Zionist labour movement, pioneered naval operations that supported illegal immigration into Palestine as well as the smuggling of arms to Jewish paramilitary groups. The movement also helped establish Jewish settlements. Its members were often also part of the Haganah, the underground Jewish paramilitary force that after independence formed the core of the Israel Defence Force.55 All in all, the involvement of sports movements in what Zionists described as defensive measures traced their roots to the late years of Ottoman rule when sports groups volunteered to protect Jews against Palestinian protesters.“ From the early 1920s, members of the sports organizations participated in activities aimed at restraining Arab manifestations of violence. They also assisted with the absorption of immigrants and in broadening the settlement enterprise, were involved in protests against British policy which sought to limit the development of the national home, and continued its activities in the fields of education, culture, etc. Many of these activists volunteered to serve in the British army during the Second World War, and some were active in saving and rehabilitating Jewish Holocaust refugees from Europe,” Harif noted.56 51 Jewish Agency for Israel. The Story of Sport in Israel, (accessed June 20, 2014), http://jafi.org/JewishAgency/English/Jewish+Education/Compelling+Content/Eye+on+Israel/Sport+in+Israel/T he+Beginnings+of+Modern+Jewish+Sport.htm 52 George Eisen, “Jewish History and the Ideology of Modern Sport: Approaches and Interpretations,” Journal of Sport History, 25:3(1998), 482-531 53 Filastin. ,مقاطعة دورة االلعاب مكابيه في تل أبيب: اإلنتصارات القومية على مكائد الصهيونيةMarch 20, 1932 54 Iss Al-Sifri. Filastin bein al-Intidab wa al- Sahyoonia. (Jaffa, 1937), 184-187 quoted in Issam Khalidi, Body and Ideology, Early Athletics in Palestine (1900 - 1948), Jerusalem Quarterly, 27 (1937), 44-58 55 Yehoshua Alouf and Gilboa Shaked, Hapoel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 8. (Detroit: Macmillan, Reference USA, 2007). 338 56 Ibid. Harif, Israeli Sport 10 Palestinian media as well as a Jewish scholar asserted that the Maccabi was using its 1935 tournament to obtain as many tourist visas as possible for Jews from abroad to visit the territory.
Filastin said it had received a complaint from residents of the town of Tulkarem denouncing the games as a provocative military exercise.57 The paper reported the letter in an article headlined “Ten 58 Thousand Jewish Athletes: By What Right are They Permitted to Come?” Ha’aretz reported that the Palestinian media had questioned whether British authorities were “taking sufficient precaution to ensure that the tourists entering the country would leave at the end of their stay under the visas granted, or whether it knew that many contemplated remaining permanently as residents.” 59 In his 1979 dissertation, “The Maccabiah Games: A History of the Jewish Olympics”, Eisen acknowledged the Palestinian concern but asserted that the number of tourists cited by the media was “highly inflated by the hostile Arab news media even though their perception as to the real purpose of the 60 Jewish influx was quite accurate.” The notion of using sports not only to project nationalism but also as a cover for developing military skills for the conquest of Palestine and defence of the rights of the Jewish people was particularly prevalent among those elements within Maccabi that traced their routes to Beitar.
Filastin and other Palestinian media demanded that the games be banned and asserted that their opening march was paramilitary in nature.61 The assertions prompted the British authorities to cancel the march a day before the opening of the Maccabiah.62 Earlier, the British had advised Beitar against wearing its brown-coloured shirts during the opening ceremony as it was reminiscent of fascist dress in Mussolini’s Italy. The ban prompted Beitar to pull out of the tournament and break away from Maccabi.63 Beitar, unlike Maccabi and Hapoel which saw itself first and foremost as sporting organisations with affinity to the Socialist International, defined itself primarily as a movement that also engaged in sports.
The Palestinian media nevertheless complained that the British gave the Zionists preferential treatment by imposing far less restrictions on them than on marches by Palestinian youth and sports groups. The complaint reflected British fears that Palestinian youth were adopting more militant nationalist attitudes. The British mandate authority warned in the public security section of its 1936 annual report that Palestinian youth had closely followed the Egyptian student movement that had “instigated disorders there in November, 1935.” It said Palestinian youth had “gradually achieved a certain degree of influence with the Arab leaders themselves and used this influence to press for the adoption of a more extreme Arab policy. These activities were voiced in the Press through the
Al-Sifri was not the first person to suspect Zionist use of sports. Palestine’s Ottoman rulers feared that sports was used as a means to further Jewish nationalism and provide paramilitary training. To counter the Zionists, Ottoman authorities pressured schools to bar sports clubs like Rishon Le Zion in Jaffa and Bar Giora in Jerusalem. Schools often barred sports clubs for fear that authorities would confiscate their equipment or close them down. Ottoman and Palestinian fears were fuelled by the participation of Hashomer — a left-wing Jewish self-defence and settlement organisation — in the Rehovot Games, Zionism’s first major series of sports tournaments. Hashomer grew out of Bar Giora — a self-defence group established during the second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine and named after Simon Bar Giora who was a leader of the Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 70 CE.
Hashomer not only fielded athletes but had been contracted to guard the Rehovot settlement.67 Palestinian nationalists sought to stress the point that youth movements like Maccabi were paramilitary rather than sports groups. “The idea of the Maccabi goes back to first century B.C. when the Roman Empire saw for its own safety that the Jews have to (assimilate) so they could become Romans, but the Jews refused; they decided to maintain their national identity. The idea was in the beginning religiously ethical, so were their ways to achieve their goals. Later the concept was reduced from the realms of religion and ethics to the ground of nationalism and weaponry. The war was ongoing between the parties. The Romans were defeated more than once by the Maccabeans. The Jews remained nationally independent. We have no objection to see the Jews struggling for the sake of their unity and independence. The most we can prove here is that the Maccabi movement was a military struggle, but not an athletic movement as many Jews want to suggest to the world. What has been mentioned was proved by history,” said Filastin.