Even in Sports: Inclusive vs Exclusive

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A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz—Who is a Jew at the Maccabiah Games—illustrates the challenge for a rapidly diversifying Jewish population. With no set policy, the international Jewish Olympics taking place in Israel allows each country to determine “who is a Jew.” The US delegation allows patrilineal Jews:

“My father raised me as a Jew, I attended synagogue with him, and I regard myself as fully Jewish,” D.T., a Division One college basketball player, says. “I don’t think it’s right that some of the delegations exclude someone because one of their parents has another religion. We’re a shrinking people, and we should try to include as many people as possible.”

Argentina goes even further toward inclusion, allowing non-Jews married to Jews to compete:

The head of the Argentine delegation, Juan Balanofsky, said he does not inspect the religious background of each competitor. “We have 70,000 members at 47 Maccabi clubs across the country, and we think one of the best ways to keep young people and their families involved in the [Jewish] community and connected to Israel is through sports,” he says.

Considering it’s just sports, it seems odd that some countries like Australia and South Africa would adhere so strictly to matrilineal descent to determine participation, but we’re guessing they believe it has ramifications for Jewish life beyond the Maccabi Games. Unfortunately, they are drawing a black-and-white line in an otherwise gray world.

Take for example the Jewish State herself: “When it comes to the Israeli delegation, Jewishness is not a criteria: one of the first medal winners at the 17th Maccabiah was Asala Shahada, a female Arab swimmer.”


  1. Curious about your feelings on having a “Jewish Olympics” at all. The concept seems a bit odd to me, seeing as how the Maccabees, after whom we name the games, were fighting against Greek Values like physical achievment (a.k.a., the Olympics). I have mixed feelings about it, and certainly see the social merits in it.

    I’d like to explore this concept further if anyone out there is interested.

    Comment by Marc J. — July 27, 2005 @ 11:03 am

  2. One advantage to the Maccabiah games is the opportunity for Jewish athletes to compete without Friday night/Saturday practices and games that most other sports competitions require.

    One could argue that the Maccabean revolt was in response to increased restrictions and prohibitions on Jewish life and worship, assimilation into Hellenist culture by leaving Judaism behind, and the desecration of the Temple, not on sport itself. Further, one could argue that by holding our own “Jewish Olympics,” we are participating in athletics without giving in to assimilation, and as such, are indeed making a Maccabean statement.

    That said, the “who is a Jew” question and the matter of inclusiveness versus traditional definitions (matrilineal descent) does seem to beg the question, “How much assimilation can we absorb and still be Jewish?”

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    Comment by Sheyna Galyan — August 1, 2005 @ 11:01 pm

  3. I think you put it nicely, Sheyna. I think sports are valuable, having played organized sports as a kid and in college. I also agree that the Maccabiah has the potential to allow to Jews to meet with Jews, and hold games/practices in an environment where Shabbat-observers can feel confortable. I think that’s why I lean toward liking having the games.

    As you point out, though, on the other side is the issue of whether participants really are Jewish at all (as the article pointed out, any Israeli citizen can participate and most countries are not very strict). I also think the degree to which we tout physical achievement/competition rather than Jewish unity and goodwill at the Maccabiah can draw the line b/t being a Jewish event and being a “Greek” event, anathema to what the Maccbees stood and fought for.

    btw…nice blog…best of luck with your book.

    Comment by Marc J. — August 2, 2005 @ 10:41 am

  4. This article really got me thinking about inclusivity in terms of the JCC Maccabi Games here in North America. It’s not a “who is a Jew” question, but “who observes what holidays?” This year, the St. Paul JCC Maccabi Games are taking place in the week preceding Tisha b’Av, which essentially excludes anyone observing The Three Weeks prior to Tisha b’Av. I’m not clear yet on why this was planned this way, or if anyone else has commented on it, but your article, Paul (and Marc’s comments), were definitely the genesis to today’s blog ( Thank you for that!

    One other thought I had on this article: if the question of “who is a Jew” for the Maccabiah Games (or any application, for that matter) is resolved, can it be anything BUT exclusionary?

    Comment by Sheyna Galyan — August 2, 2005 @ 4:20 pm

  5. Sheyna, you make some excellent points and raise some interesting questions both here and on your blog. We’ve had some similar problems here in St. Louis, with Federation- or JCRC- or other Jewish organization-sponsored events being held on days or in venues that preclude more observant Jews (meant in terms of that particular observance, not in terms of what stream they affiliate with) from attending. I don’t know whether it is purposeful or not, but I like to give the benefit of the doubt and judge favorably where possible.

    Most often, I think it is because those planning just do not realize they are being exclusionary. Where I have a problem, though, is when they are notified of the problem and then brush it aside due to the “low turnout” (or no turnout) among the more observant, or when they respond that “the (vast) majority within the community do not view this as problematic.” These are very insnsitive remarks and, as you put it, exclusionary, especially when pitting one’s religious Jewish beliefs/observances against their ability to participate in events within the larger Jewish community. This simply should not be an issue at a Jewish-sponsored event.

    As to your last question on the blog, I think you posit the question correctly…once a definition of “who is a Jew” is adopted, it must, by necessity, be exclusionary. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, though. Certainly Catholics and Muslims, Italians and Arabs, etc. all have a definition (be it hereditary, by observance, or some combo) of who is “in” and who is “out” of their group affiliation. Even the Israeli government does so for immigration purposes. If a “Jew” is anyone who says they are, then it will cease to have meaning at all, over time. Given our glorious history of contributions to humanity and the world, under the most trying of circumstances, that would be tragic.

    Comment by Marc J. — August 3, 2005 @ 10:10 am

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