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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

The Zionist revolution I: the home team

Galilee Diary #183;
May 30, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Zionism was a revolution against a number of different aspects of Jewish existence: against the oppression of the Diaspora, against the sense that the Jewish people had been excluded from history since losing their national sovereignty, against the definition of Judaism as a religion, and against the negative stereotype of the Jew. Seeing Zionism as a multifaceted revolution can help us understand a number of interesting paradoxes and dilemmas in Israeli life and culture today.

In 1898, at the Second Zionist Congress, Herzl’s friend and disciple, Dr. Max Nordau, gave his annual keynote address, which is still remembered for its call for “muscular Judaism:”

…nature has endowed us with the spiritual qualities required for athletic achievements of an extraordinary quality. All we lack is muscle, and that can be developed with the aid of physical exercise….The more Jews achieve in the various branches of sport, the greater will be their self-confidence and self-respect.

Rebelling against the stereotype of the Jew as weak, timid, pale, spiritual, and unable to defend himself, the Zionist movement placed a high value on athletics. Before the First World War, a network of Maccabi sports clubs had been established in Europe, and later provided the basis of organized athletic activity in the Yishuv (the Zionist community in Palestine). Pale-faced, thick-lensed yeshivah bochers were not likely to build a modern state; we needed muscular, bold, natural, self-reliant pioneers to create our new reality. As all of the social and economic life of the Yishuv was organized along ideological lines, the Maccabi Union became associated with the General Zionists (one of the forerunners of today’s Likud), and in the 20s a parallel organization arose to serve the needs of the athletes of the left: Hapoel sports clubs were affiliated with the Histadrut labor federation. Today, the professional sports teams of Israel still bear the names of those original ideological athletic unions – Maccabi, Hapoel, and also Beitar, associated with Revisionist Zionism – and thus, we are constantly reminded that soccer and basketball are not just branches of the entertainment industry, but important elements of the Zionist revolution.

A few weeks ago, the national championship in soccer was won by Hapoel Sachnin. Sachnin is an Arab town a few miles from Shorashim, long famous for being the focus of tensions between Israeli Arabs and the Israeli government. The team includes some Jews and some foreign players; the coach is Jewish. While the fan base is the 23,000 people of Sachnin (over half of whom attended the championship game at a stadium near Tel Aviv) and tens of thousands of Arabs from other towns and villages around the Galilee, there are many loyal and enthusiastic fans among the Jewish population of the region, some of whom joined the all-night dancing in the streets of the town after the victory. Sachnin has a typically high unemployment rate and a run-down infrastructure; they don’t even have a regulation soccer stadium and have to play home games elsewhere.

Thus, the Jewish state will be represented next year in the European soccer cup competition by an Arab team, wearing the red uniforms of the socialist Zionist Hapoel, playing for their country, whose flag features a blue magen david. The media are full of discussions of the meaning of this irony – to the Arabs, to Israel, to the conflict. Does the victory symbolize integration and mutual respect based on merit – or does it provide a convenient distraction from the ongoing reality of discrimination and marginalization? Do sports really matter? Will the team sing “Hatikvah?”

Herzl and Nordau saw glorious visions of the Zionist future. I wonder if they could have envisioned the president of Israel presenting the championship cup to Hapoel Sachnin.

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