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January 30, 2011 10:00 pm

Jews and Sport, a Match Made in heaven?

avatar by Ben Horne

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Avram Grant at Auschwitz for the International March of the Living. Photo: Yaffa Phillips.

A sporting career does not seem the perfect job for ‘a nice Jewish boy’. Despite the fact that Jewish people should have the stamina and strength for sporting competition after spending a 40 year period in the desert. The stereotypical joke about the Jewish Sport heroes book being the thinnest in the world has created the idea that Jews and Sport don’t mix! A look at the CV’s of historical prize fighter Daniel Mendoza, Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz and numerous Jewish Baseball stars would prove that the Jewish Sporting heroes book would in fact be fatter than a tome!

Spitz’s record of seven gold medals at the 1972 games stands out as one of the most remarkable achievements of a modern day athlete. But when did the Jewish fascination and interest with recreational activity begin? The answer could be found dating back to the Second Temple period. It was during this period that Hellenism became widespread in Israel as the Greeks attempted to distract the Jews from their religious duties with the influence of the Greek ideology and culture. In an extraordinary event of the period, the Hellenist high priest Jason built a gymnasium next to the temple! It is unclear whether the priests would use the gym before or after offering sacrifices, but all that we can say is this was an act of great Chutzpah…….In the end Hellenism in Israel was vanquished by Judah the Maccabee and his army. It is interesting to note that the major Jewish sporting competition bears the name, ‘The Maccabiah Games’! How ironic!

The history of Jewish involvement in Sport has not always yielded memoires of sporting success and triumph. Indeed in some instances it has reflected the political situation of Jewish/Israeli people in society. One of the most prominent examples of this mix was the 1972 Munich Olympics in which the Israeli national team were taken hostage by a Palestinian terrorist organisation named ‘Black September’, who demanded the release of over 200 Palestinians prisoners. Despite rescue attempts and negotiation with the terrorists, 11 of the team were murdered and only one of the athletes managed to escape. This moment remains one of the darkest episodes in the history of the Olympic Games and the events have been documented in films such as One Day in September and Munich. Anti-Semitism has also made its way onto the sporting field and is prevalent in British football and Baseball. In the English Premier league several Israeli players have faced anti-Semitic abuse from crowds, while Tottenham Hotspur, who have a large Jewish following and are self-known as ‘The Yids’, have also been the subject of racist taunting. With increased monitoring of fans behaviour and harsher penalties for racial abuse, these incidents are becoming less frequent.

Despite these issues, proud acts of Jewish identify within a sporting context are not uncommon occurrences.  As a case study, current West Ham United manager Avram Grant has displayed a loyalty to Jewish tradition and brought to media attention his Jewish identity. Grant has been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse and the most violent form has been death threats in the mail. When manager at Chelsea, Grant’s most important victory was a win over Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final. This coincided with Yom Hashoa and Grant openly dedicated the victory to those who ‘built a new generation in Israel’ in the post Holocaust period, while also wearing a black armband during the match. Indeed after the game Grant flew to Auschwitz to give a speech and take part in a ‘march of the living ceremony’. Grant’s father survived the Holocaust, but experienced the nightmare of having to witness the death of several of his family members. Just this September, Grant missed West Ham’s Premier league match against Stoke City as it clashed with Yom Kippur and cited respect for the honour of his parents and thousands of years of tradition for the reasons behind his decision. The club feared that there would be a negative and hostile reaction towards Grant from the fans, however this never materialised. He is in good company of Jewish sports professionals to put their religious duties ahead of their playing responsibilities including the likes of Baseball stars Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green.

Displays of proud Jewish identify within the sporting arena serve to promote a positive representation of modern day Jewry to a global audience which can only be a benefit to the Jewish population. Over the coming weeks, this blog will explore and investigate several themes related to Jewish sport practice and provide fans with a deeper insight into the relationship between Jews and Sport!

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  • Melissa

    Great work Ben will make sure this is advertised for people to see on my show and Facebook/Twitter pages!!

    Keep it up and send the links my way!!

    Melissa

  • yeffy

    Enjoyed this piece in the print paper….

  • rebleib

    Personally Omri Casspi is a hero of mine! Not only is he a Jew is sports who retains his Jewish identity, he is also a proud Israeli!

  • mark m.

    Looking forward to reading more from you. This is deffinitly different. Sandy kofax is as far as my Jewish/sport knowledge goes:)

  • Keis Layzell

    Well Done Ben, I’m very impressed, you’ve come a long long way from your uni work.
    I like this article, it’s a very accomplished, well researched piece of work.
    Best of luck and keep the links coming.

  • “Muscular Judaism” is important in an anti-Semitic world.

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