Jews & Sports on the International Scene

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A Polish Jew around 1930 probably would not have talked about the success of other teams but of his own involvement in one of the numerous Jewish sports clubs active between the two world wars. The club in which one played usually also stood for one's political orientation: the right-wing Zionists gathered around Betar, the mainstream Zionists assembled around Maccabi, Socialist-oriented Zionists founded the Hapoel sports movement, and the Socialist (anti-Zionist) Bundists were active in the Morgnshtern teams.

In the Europe between the world wars one knew that Jews could win Nobel Prizes--what was the big fuss about that? But that in 1925 a Jewish soccer team like Hakoah Vienna could beat the best European team, West Ham United, 5-0 on their London home grounds was a real source of honor and pride.

Thus, today it is perhaps the lack of interest in sports, and particularly European sports, among intellectuals, and mainly among American intellectuals, that has made this a non-topic of historiography so far.

Inclusion & Exclusion

Sports served both as a means of inclusion and as a way of exclusion, and Jews used sports as vehicles for emancipation at both the individual and collective level. Jews could show that they belonged to the surrounding society by participating in the sports associations of their neighborhood, while in other instances they were not allowed to join, either by being officially barred or prevented simply by a prevailing antisemitic atmosphere, as described for Austria and Britain by Michael John and Tony Collins. As a result they would often found their own sports associations.

In both instances--inclusion and exclusion--athletic activity was more than a marginal addition to their lives. The interwar period was not only a time of rising antisemitism, but also a high tide for sports enthusiasm. In his History of a German, Sebastian Haffner dedicated a whole chapter to "the sports craze that took possession of the youth in Germany."

Haffner emphasized the political dimension of sports and observed that during the 1920s and '30s the membership of sports clubs and the number of participants in sporting events increased tenfold: "It was the last German mass mania to which I myself succumbed," Haffner admitted. Like Haffner himself, millions of Germans took part in this craze, usually without noticing in it the pseudo war-play it often manifested. Even the political left,

"regarded sport as a splendid invitation by which we would henceforth be able to vent our warlike instincts harmlessly and peacefully. The peace of the world was, they felt, assured. It did not strike them that the 'German champions,' without exception, wore little black, white, and red ribbons in their buttonholes, the colors of the prewar Reich, while the colors of the republic were black, red, and gold. It did not occur to them that through sports, the lure of the war game, the old thrilling magic of national rivalry, was being exercised and maintained and that this was not some harmless venting of bellicose instinct."

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich.