Maccabiah : On track for Israel

What do the Maccabiah Games mean for us as a global community?


The Maccabiah Games are one of the world’s largest sporting events. They are also the biggest Jewish event in the world, the most important Zionist event and, by bringing tens of thousands of participants and their families and friends to Israel, provide the country’s tourism industry with a major economic boost.
Amir Peled, Maccabiah chairman, says there will be a record 10,000 participants from 85 countries in this year’s 20th Maccabiah, competing in 41 sports. “We have always billed ourselves as the world’s third largest sporting event in terms of competitors, after the Olympics and the Universiade (University Games) but I think we are now challenging the Universiade for second place.”

Known as the Jewish Olympics, the Maccabiah Games are one of a number of “regional sporting events” under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee. Peled says: “Quality matters but the Maccabiah is first and foremost about giving the maximum number of Jewish people the opportunity to come to Israel and compete in the sport of their choice, whether as Juniors, Masters, in the Paralympics, or the open competitions.”

With so many participants from English-speaking countries, there is an emphasis on “Anglo-Saxon” sports, such as rugby, lacrosse, netball, baseball and ice hockey.
Among the 150 “elite” sportspeople participating this year will be American swimmers Anthony Ervin, who won two gold medals in Rio and veteran Olympic medalists Jason Lezak and Lenny Krayzelburg, as well as the Israeli baseball team (made up of American Jews), which recently reached the quarter finals of the World Baseball Classic.

The Maccabiah is also an opportunity for young sportspeople to get the boost in confidence needed to go on to greater achievements. English tennis star Angela Buxton won Maccabiah medals in 1953 before going on to become a Wimbledon champion. Mark Spitz won six Maccabiah gold medals in 1969, setting him up for his seven swimming Olympic medals in Munich in 1972.

The Maccabiah is also the biggest Jewish event in the world, with 10,000 participants watched by more than 20,000 relatives and friends who come to Israel especially to see them. Peled adds: “The 6,000 events, in 80 locations around Israel, attract tens of thousands of spectators and the opening ceremony will be broadcast to millions of viewers in Israel by Channel 2 and around the world by i24.”

Moreover, he says, the Maccabi movement itself strengthens Jewish identity and among many secular Jews is the main expression of their Jewish identity.
“In some Jewish communities, in countries like Mexico and Argentina, the local Maccabi clubs have more members than the local synagogues,” he says.

The Maccabiah is also the Zionist Olympics and this is especially important in an era when Zionism is so frequently delegitimised and demonised. Jews from throughout the Diaspora compete in sport in Israel to show their solidarity with Israel.

Throughout history, many Jews have used the Maccabiah as a springboard for aliyah, notably in the 1930s, when European participants opted not to return after the Nazis had come to power. In more modern times, American basketball player Tal Brody was persuaded by Moshe Dayan during the 1965 games to make Israel his home and he went on to captain Maccabi Tel Aviv to its first European title in 1977. 

Peled says: “I can tell you that half of the 50-person Cuban delegation from the last Maccabiah have since immigrated to Israel. But that isn’t necessarily the aim of the games. We just want to encourage a love of Israel and for Jews from around the world to feel at home in Israel — to feel it is their second home.”

The 20th Maccabiah will have the added significance of marking 50 years since the unification of Jerusalem and a large proportion of the events will take place in the capital, including the opening ceremony at Teddy Stadium.

Last but not least, the Maccabiah is set to give an economic boost to Israel’s tourist industry, with an estimated 30,000 participants and their families and friends from abroad between them contributing an estimated £90 million to Israel’s economy. 

“We appreciate the effort world Jewry is making to come to these games,” says Peled. “It is not easy and the strength of the shekel makes it very expensive. 

“But the fact so many Jews are coming here from so many countries is the ultimate triumph of the Maccabiah.” 

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