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  • Jewish Sports in the Diaspora, Yishuv, and Israel:Between Nationalism and Politics
  • Haim Kaufman (bio)


The emergence of Zionism, the Jewish national movement, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involved a basic revolution in Jewish life and collective identity in the Diaspora. One of the main features of this revolution, whose ultimate goal was the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz-Israel (Palestine), was the creation of the "New Jew" who would serve as the idealized symbol of national renewal. Zionism's founding fathers regarded gymnastics and sports as important activities for repudiating the biases surrounding the Jew's alleged physical inferiority.

After centuries during which body culture was removed from Jewish life, the Zionist Movement introduced a major revision of the attitude toward physical development. The enhancement of physical prowess that aided pioneering tasks, such as building and defense of the homeland, also contributed to creating a community of athletes eager to demonstrate the revived strength of the Yishuv and later of Israel. Gymnastics and sports not only promoted Zionism's goal of revitalizing the nation, they also expressed deep political divisions in the Jewish collective.

This article focuses on a major area of research in Zionist history that has been somewhat neglected: the rise of Jewish athletic and sports associations in the Diaspora and Eretz-Israel. The development of these associations and clubs is analyzed, their ideological views outlined, and their involvement in the dialectical tension between national goals and the goals of political parties clarified. Beginning with the prestate period and continuing through the following decades, this article describes the changing perception of sports and athletic associations from the birth of Israel to the present. [End Page 147]

The Beginning of Jewish–National Sports and Athletic Clubs

The organization of Jewish national sports and gymnastic clubs began in Europe in the late nineteenth century.1 One of the first clubs, the "Israelitischer Turnverein," (The Israelite Gymnastic Club) was founded in Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1895 and eventually became "Maccabi Constantinople."2 Jewish clubs were soon established in other countries too: "Gibor" (later "Shimshon"—Samson) in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv (1897) and "Bar Kochva" in Berlin (1898) led to the founding of many more Jewish sports clubs especially in areas where German culture dominated. The "Judische Turnerschaft" (Jewish Gymnastic Movement) was established in 1903 and served as the umbrella organization for all Jewish sports clubs.

The emergence of Jewish sports clubs took place mostly in western and central Europe. In eastern Europe the process proceeded at a slower pace. The ideas of the Enlightenment, industrialization, and modernization penetrated Russia inchmeal, so that Russian Jewry was less exposed than western Jewry to the ideological influence and external features of the Enlightenment, such as the shift in the moral approach toward body culture. Also, the autocratic government of the czar prohibited freedom of organization and the formation of gymnastic clubs because of they were seen, and justifiably so, as means of awakening nationalism. The first Jewish sports club in eastern Europe was established in Lodz in 1912, and was followed by clubs in Odessa (1913) and Warsaw (1914).3

There were three major reasons leading to the establishment of these clubs:

First, anti-Semitism pervaded the gymnastic clubs and forced the Jews to leave and set up their own clubs. This was the chief cause for the founding of the first Jewish athletic club in Turkey. Young German and Austrian Jews employed in Turkey joined the German athletic club "Teutonia" but the club closed its doors to more Jewish members. In response, the Jews quit and established their own clubs.

There was a gap in "Deutsche Turnerschaft" between its inherent prejudices and its official charter that contained no specific anti-Jewish sections. While many German Jews were full-fledged members of the club, many others felt uncomfortable in it because of the "latent" anti-Semitism and tended to drop out or found their own gymnastic clubs. Arthur Ruppin (1876–1943; economist, sociologist, and "father of Zionist settlement" in Eretz-Israel) recalled in his memoirs the disagreeable feeling in physical [End Page 148] education classes. Theodor Herzl himself, father of political Zionism and founder of the World...


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