My visit to Israel this summer coincided with the Maccabiah Games, a sporting event that takes place every four years and is best known the “Jewish Olympics.” At the opening ceremony in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Perez and other officials gave long, speeches, reiterating that the city will remain the undivided capital of Israel. The ceremony featured Jewish athletes from all over the world marching into the stadium with their national flag. As we watched, I asked my companions, “Why a Jewish Olympics?” Their answer was: This is really a matchmaking event, a chance for Jews worldwide to meet each other so they can marry in the faith.
The Maccabiah’s website lists world-renown Jewish athletes and Olympic medalists who have participated since the first event in 1932, and the Games are clearly a source of pride for Israel and the Jewish people. But it is also clear that the Maccabiah competition is little known around the world. My guess is that the average person outside Israel (including the average Jew) does not even know that this year’s Games took place, which brings up significant questions: How does Israel benefit from a Jewish Olympics? Does Israel miss the point by limiting its “Olympics” to Jews only—or does Israel need to protect its Jewish citizens from the world? Are the Jewish people more likely to survive and flourish if they are isolated from the world than if they are engaged with the world? And is it the proper function of this Israeli-sponsored event to help its participants find spouses?
Most Israeli Jews are liberal, and Israelis travel around the world in droves. However, when it comes to nationalism and Jewish survival, Israel often chooses the conservative path of isolation over engagement.
Let’s start with the Maccabiah. Placing aside the religious issue, it makes no business sense to limit your participants and your audience. This year’s Maccabiah attracted more than 9,000 Jewish athletes from 70 countries, which compares well with the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which hosted about 10,000 athletes (though they came from 204 countries). But despite its size, the Maccabiah had a miniscule world audience and little, if any, revenue from network television advertising outside Israel. It would probably have made better economic sense if non-Jewish athletes participated as well.
A universal Macabiah would also have given Israel a golden opportunity to showcase its achievements and progress. It would have presented a confident Israel. It would have given Israel and the world an opportunity to engage with each other. It would have generated international buzz and brought Israel substantial tourism and media attention. If the Maccabiah were open to non-Jews, it would give Israel a unique opportunity to grow and flourish as an athletic venue.
There’s also an historical reason to open the event to non-Jews: the Maccabiah’s own origins. It was the late 19th century discrimination against Jewish athletes in Central and Eastern Europe that led to the establishment of the first Jewish athletic clubs and, eventually, to the Maccabiah, the Jews’ own competition in Palestine. But since then, the world has opened up, and it’s time for Israel to open the Maccabiah to non-Jews.
As it is, the Maccabiah is inherently limited in its ability to produce great athletic results. An Olympics-like event should strive for the best, not for mediocrity, but the percentage of Jews in the world population is so small that it’s unlikely that a Jewish-only event can attract many world-class competitors. A Jewish Maccabiah translates to the isolation of Jewish athletes and with that, the Isolation of its host country, just the opposite of what is good for Israel. (Nor is it Israel’s—or the Maccabiah’s—role to find suitable husbands and wives for the world’s Jewish athletes!)
Imagine, if you will, the Palestinians or any other Arab entity holding an “Islamic Olympics” exclusively for Muslim athletes, or England holding a “Christian Olympics” for Protestants only. The world would heap criticism and ridicule on such a venture. Critics would say that mixing sport and religion is antithetical to the true spirit of the Olympic Games’ ideal of peaceful competition, that such an “Olympics” would be a breeding ground for nationalism, separatism, and isolation, quite opposite the Olympic Games’ objective. The fact that the “Jewish Olympics” are held to a lower bar is not good for world peace and not good for Israel. Israel would benefit more if were to open the Maccabiah to athletes world-wide, or at least to the region’s competitors, much as the Pan-American Games do for Americas. Such Games would display Israel’s confidence and would require Israelis to compete fairly and squarely.
Like the two-state solution that Israel favors, the Maccabiah is another example of Israel’s unsustainable policy of favoring isolation over engagement. Israel has fenced itself off. Instead of pushing for a policy to engage the Palestinians and the Arab world, it advocates separation. Instead of advocating a political solution whereby the Palestinians would be part of its future, Israel pushes for a solution that will distance the Palestinians from its future. But it is an illusion to believe that the 5.5 million Arabs and Palestinians who are interwoven physically, economically, geographically and emotionally with Israel will ever be isolated from Israel. Isolation breeds suspicion and hatred and perpetuates the conflict. Israel should not be afraid of its Palestinian neighbors. Engaging them need not risk the safety of Israel’s Jews—but isolation from Palestinians will surely give Israel the opposite of what it needs, which is peace.
One way to engage is by creating an Israeli Palestinian Confederation. Such a Confederation would be a common third government for the people of Israel and Palestine together. Israel could keep its government and its institutions, including its army. The Palestinians could keep their government and their institutions. An independent, mutual Israeli Palestinian government for both peoples would work to solve common concerns on a daily basis. To see an illustration of how this confederation could work go to: