Every four years, Israel hosts the Maccabiah, also referred to as “the Jewish Olympics.” It is an international Jewish athletic event, which is open to Jews and all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion. The first-ever Maccabiah took place during the British Mandate at the end of March 1932.
In his excellent report in Haaretz this week, Ilan Goldman wrote that some 30 Arab citizens of Israel competed in the past two Maccabiahs. The organizers of the event do not know exactly when Arabs first began participating in the games, however. “Staff members at the archives in Kfar Hamaccabiah say such a data analysis has never been done,” Goldman reports, “although one of the most veteran employees will tell you that as early as the second Maccabiah in 1935, the British High Commissioner ordered the inclusion of Arab residents of Mandatory Palestine. A summary of the archive’s documents also reveals that Muslim boxers from Egypt competed in the first Maccabiah.”
Nearly 400 athletes from 18 countries competed in the first Maccabiah, according to the official website of the event. This included some 60 athletes from Arab states, including Syria and Egypt. Fast-forward nearly 80 years, and at the 18th Maccabiah games in 2009 more than 6,000 athletes from 53 nations competed along with 3,000 Israeli participants in 31 sports, according to Haaretz. The opening ceremony of this year’s games is less than a week away.
In the days leading up to the games in 1932, the Palestine Bulletin, the newspaper that would later become the Palestine Post (and even later, the Jerusalem Post) published a number of reports from its Maccabiah correspondent on preparations for the games.
For example, the 27th March report above confirmed that 120 carrier pigeons from all parts of Palestine, “ten for each of the twelve tribes,” would be released from the inauguration ceremony in Tel Aviv, sending the news of the opening ceremony “to the furthest corners of the country.”
Another report (see below), published a week earlier on 20th March, discussed the significance of “the first Jewish Olympiad” happening “at the very time when most countries are withdrawing from participation in the International Olympic Games.” The 1932 Summer Olympics had the misfortune of taking place during the Great Depression, when many nations could not afford to send athletes to the event in Los Angeles. In fact, Los Angeles was the only city to submit a bid to host the games. Even incumbent President Herbert Hoover did not attend, sending Vice-President Charles Curtis instead.
The Palestine Bulletin’s correspondent did not predict that the games would see “any spectacular achievements will be witnessed so far as record-breaking is concerned.” However, “for those who enjoy good clean hard sporting effort there should be plenty of exciting moments.”
The same report also gave details of “the chief events in the programme” for the games:
Newspaper images taken from the Historical Jewish Press Archive.