“We are on the map and we’re staying on the map, not just in sports, but in everything”. This quote from American-Jewish basketball player Tal Brody is not only one of the most well-known quotes in Israel’s sports history, but also one of the most famous in Israeli culture overall.

Brody was an All-American while playing at the University of Illinois and was selected with the 12th pick in the first round of the 1965 NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets. Yet during that summer, Brody made a decision that changed both his life and the history of Israeli sports. After leading Team USA to a gold medal in the 1965 Maccabiah Games, Brody was persuaded to join the relatively unknown Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel-Aviv in 1966.

Bringing modern American basketball to Israel, Brody helped turn Maccabi Tel-Aviv into a European powerhouse. After beating Soviet Union giants CSKA Moscow in the European Championships semifinals group stage in 1977, Brody provided the iconic quote that every child growing up in Israel knows. With Brody as the captain, Maccabi Tel-Aviv went on to win its first European Cup, and a dynasty was born.

Today, Maccabi Tel-Aviv Basketball Club is one of the most decorated sports clubs in the world, winning over 100 domestic and international titles, including six European Cups, and is one of the biggest powerhouses in European basketball history.

The club’s most recent European Cup came under head coach David Blatt, who also immigrated to Israel after participating in the 1981 Maccabiah Games. Building on his international success, Blatt became the first Israeli-American coach in the NBA, joining the Cleveland Cavaliers and winning the Eastern Conference title in 2015.

The unprecedented Maccabi Tel-Aviv dynasty that helped put Israeli sports on the map would likely not have happened if Brody had joined the NBA instead of falling in love with Israel after participating in the Maccabiah Games.

The Maccabiah Games

The Maccabiah Games, also known as “The Jewish Olympics”, are a multi-sport event for Jewish people from across the globe. The Maccabiah Games are the third largest multi-sport event in the world when considering the number of participating countries, the number of sports events and the number of participating athletes, trailing only the Olympic Games and the Universiade (a.k.a. World University Games). Unlike other sport mega-events that rotate between different host cities, the quadrennial Maccabiah Games always take place in Israel.

The Maccabiah Games have embraced several Olympic traditions, such as a torch relay, opening and closing ceremonies and having different formats of athletes’ villages. However, most of the participating athletes are amateurs, and most of the events take place at smaller local or regional facilities that cannot be compared to stadiums used in mega-events like the Olympics.

The Maccabiah Games have adopted several Olympic traditions, such as a torch relay. Here, Israeli Olympic bronze medalist Ori Sasson carries the Maccabiah Torch. (Photo by Itamar Grinberg)

While the level of competition may not be as high as in professional international sports events, several athletes have used the Maccabiah Games as a platform to showcase their talent and later moved to Israel, received Israeli citizenship, and represented Israel in international competitions, including the Olympic Games. American weightlifter David Berger participated in the 1969 Maccabiah Games, then immigrated to Israel (known as “making Aliyah”) in 1970. Berger competed for Israel in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and was one of the 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and referees kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the attack known as “The Munich Massacre”. A recent example is American born swimmer Andrea Murez who represented the United States in the 2013 Universiade Games and competed in the 2009 and 2013 Maccabiah Games where she set Maccabiah records; Murez immigrated to Israel in 2014 and represented Israel in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Moreover, a number of legendary Jewish athletes from other nations have participated in the Maccabiah Games, most famously Hungarian gymnast Agnes Kelti, a 10-time Olympic medalist, and one of the most accomplished swimmers in history, American Mark Spitz.

From Muscular Judaism to Nation Building

The Maccabiah Games are rooted in the Zionist Movement–the national movement for Jews, seeking a homeland for Jewish people. In the second Zionist Congress of 1898, Max Nordau coined the term “Muscular Judaism”, trying to transform the image of the separatist bible learning Jew and create an image of a new proactive Jew that would work the land, fight and build the future homeland. For further readings about sports and Zionist ideology, see the following article by Kaufman and Galily.

With the growing number of sports clubs in Europe, Jewish sports clubs were also formed, adopting Hebrew names such as Maccabi. In the 1928 Maccabi World Union, an umbrella organization for Maccabi clubs was formed, and in 1932 the first Maccabiada (later renamed the Maccabiah Games) were held in what was then British governed Palestine with 390 participants from 18 countries. The second Maccabiah Games were held in 1935, but due to World War II and violence in Palestine, the third Maccabiah did not take place until 1950, two years after Israel’s independence.

Since the fourth Maccabiah Games in 1953, the games have been held every four years. In the earlier decades of the State of Israel, the Games served an important nation building role. Israel is an ethnic democracy, and by definition a Jewish State. Two of the most significant laws are the Law of Return (Shvut Law) and the Citizenship Law that grant Israeli citizenship to every Jewish person immigrating to Israel. Along these lines, the Maccabiah Games served as a recruiting tool for the Zionist movement, a way to connect Jewish people from the diaspora to the State of Israel, and a channel for immigration. (This article by Galily provides further information about the contribution of the Maccabiah Games to the development of sport in the state of Israel.)

The 20th Maccabiah Games

As of 2017, the Maccabi World Union operates in over 60 countries across five continents. There are regional, national, and even continental Maccabiah Games, but the flagship event of the movement is the quadrennial Maccabiah Games in Israel. In July 2017, the 20th edition of the Maccabiah Games will begin on July 4, with the opening ceremony and most of the events taking place in Jerusalem.

Maccabi House in the Maccabiah Village in Ramat Gan, Israel. (Photo by Yoav Dubinsky)

The decision to have Jerusalem as the main host city of the Games for the second straight time is a political one by the Israeli government, emphasizing the city as the capital of Israel in the year when the city is celebrating 50 years of unification following the 1967 Six Days War. While Israel refers to the control over the Western Wall and Eastern Jerusalem as “liberation” of the city, the Palestinians and their supporters refer to it as “occupation.”

According to the website of the 2017 Maccabiah Games, the 20th Maccabiah Games are expected to be the biggest event yet, having approximately 10,000 participants from 80 countries, competing in over 40 sports events. Along with the traditional competitions, there are also youth competitions, master’s competitions, competitions for people with disabilities, competitions in winter sports, such as ice hockey, and open events such as a half-marathon where the general public can participate. Several current and former Olympic medalists are scheduled to participate in the games, such as current Olympic swimming champions Anthony Ervin (2 gold medals at Rio 2016, gold and silver in Sydney 2000) and former swimming champions Jason Lezak (8 Olympic medals, 4 gold) and Lenny Krayzelburg (4 Olympic gold medals).

Engaging youth, strengthening the connection between Jewish communities and the State of Israel and educating about the history and culture through touring the country are essential parts of the Maccabiah. While Jerusalem will be the city that hosts the bulk of the events, competitions are spread throughout the country. So, although the significance of the Games has changed over the years, they still serve political, economical, touristic and educational roles for Israel and the Zionist Movement (the following link provides further information on the history of the Maccabiah Games).

Originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, Yoav Dubinsky is a Ph.D. student in sport studies and a Graduate Teaching Associate at the University of Tennessee, Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies. His research focuses on country image, nation branding and public diplomacy in sport. He can be contacted at: ydubinsk@vols.utk.edu