Yesterday the 18th Maccabiah Games kicked off in Israel, bringing sport to the forefront of the news. I propose to adopt the sporting “vibe” in today’s update.
A day before the Opening Ceremony, the 400-strong Australian team marched across the now permanent bridge over the Yarkon River, in order to honour the four Australian victims of the 1997 Maccabiah tragedy, Elizabeth Sawicki z”l, Yetti Bennett z”l, Greg Small z”l and Warren Zines z”l. Among the Australian delegation were 34 survivors of the tragedy and family members of the four. Please read ‘Time to move on’ from Haaretz by Australia’s own Dan Goldberg and ‘Australians hold memorial for the 1997 Yarkon river bridge disaster’ from Jerusalem Post.
Obviously this is not the forum for me to post results or predictions for the outcome of the competition, but what I will comment on is what a tremendous event it is for Israel and the entire Jewish world. With 7,000 athletes from 51 countries competing in 31 different sports, the event is a fantastic way to bring the Jewish world closer together through a forum that everyone can unite on. As one Sydney man put it, “the most exciting thing is that the Maccabiah is a gathering of Jewish people representing their communities at a sporting event that is broadcast to Jewish households throughout the world. This is a meeting of a diverse group of Jews with different backgrounds and social cultures, but at the end of the day, when they go to synagogue they pray in the same language as I do” (see more).
While sport is supposed to transcend politics, the opening ceremony almost became political when activists working for abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit’s release suggested that every Maccabiah participant wear a yellow ribbon over one shoulder during the ceremony. In the last minute, organisers of the event would not allow the show of solidarity to go ahead. While some believed that the idea was quashed so as not to embarrass the government, a spokesman for the organising committee stated, “with all due respect we can’t take a ceremony that we’ve worked on for the past two weeks and change it to fit what the Shalit forum wants.” He said that Shalit would be mentioned in the welcome speech but added, “We can’t turn this event into a rally to free Shalit. It’s an international sporting event” (see more). He is right; it is a sporting event. However, it would have served as a reminder to all that while we are free to play and watch sports, Gilad Shalit’s whereabouts still remain unknown and he is unable to join his Jewish brothers and sisters from across the world in the enjoyment of sport.
Interestingly, the issue of sport and Israel had already been on my mind for a few days after watching Israel’s doubles win in the Davis Cup over Russia, a result which secured the Israelis a place in the semi finals to take place against Spain over Rosh Hashana, in September (see more). This is the furthest Israel has even made it in the Davis Cup series, and as one Israeli put it to me just yesterday, makes the tiny country of Israel one of the best four teams in the world at the moment!
Indeed, as Simon Spungin from Haaretz notes, that “from the NBA to Major League Baseball, from the English Premier League to the tennis courts of Wimbledon… Jews and Israelis are becoming increasingly prominent and successful in the world of sport” (see more). From Yossi Benayoun who plays soccer for Liverpool to Omri Casspi, who was just drafted in the first round of the NBA draft, Israelis are making their mark on the international sporting arena and the world is getting the opportunity to see the diversity of Israel – a country that refuses to be solely defined by conflict.
Israel Advocacy Analyst
Zionist Council of Victoria