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Articles > The Rise of a Jewish Sports Movement

The founding of the Bar-Kochba gymnastics club of Berlin in 1898 met with considerable opposition in the Jewish community of its day, not because of its association with sport (rabbis appeared at the dedication of similar clubs founded soon afterwards elsewhere in Germany), but because of concern that organizing a separate sports club along religious lines would “supply grist to the mills of racial anti-Semitism.” One Jewish reader wrote to a German paper that the “German of Jewish faith will be ill-served through the formation of an association of Jewish stock….for the German Jew is first of all a German….and does not consider the possibility to be a Jew first and then a German.”

The newly formed Judische Turnerschaft (Jewish gymnastics club) claimed that its aim of regenerating the Jewish people would not be done at the expense of German feelings. The chairman of the Deutsche Turnerschaft, Ferdinand Goetz, called upon the Jews to forsake such an organization and “merge into Germanhood”. Goetz had gone out on a limb in previously expelling the openly anti-Semitic Austrian section of the movement, claiming that the Jewish gymnast was of German stock but with Mosaic faith.

In Turkey, young Jews from Austria and Germany had joined the local German gymnastics club, but when anti-Semitic nationalistic tendencies in this club led to the expulsion of its Jewish members in 1895 they founded a parallel club, using the Organization of German Gymnasts as their model. In Bulgaria, where Jews lived as equals, it was not anti-Semitism but rather emerging Jewish nationalism that led gymnasts to establish a Jewish club based on the Slavic national movement, and was called “Makabi”.

By the 6th World Zionist Congress, held in Basel in 1903, representatives of the Jewish Gymnastics clubs held the Erster Judischer Turntag (First Jewish Gymnastics Day) and proclaimed the aim of the Judische Turnerschaft to “foster gymnastics as a medium to build up physical fitness as part of the Jewish National Idea.”

In the wake of political changes brought about by World War I, as well as the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist faction within the Jewish gymnastics movement became stronger, and in 1921 the World Maccabi Union was formed. In the years that followed, members of many Maccabi clubs were among the elite of their countries’ athletes and represented their nations in Olympic competition. Among Olympic medal winner in Hungary prior to WWII, nearly 25% were Jews.

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