The European Maccabi Games, a major sporting event accommodating around 2300 Jewish athletes, took place in Germany for the first time from 27 July until 4 August 2015. Seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, Berlin’s Olympiapark is a highly symbolic venue. In recognition of that, Foreign Minister Steinmeier thanked the athletes from around the world for their vote of confidence.
The Maccabiah as an answer to anti-Semitism in sport
The first Jewish athletics clubs in Europe were founded towards the end of the 19th century. The primary reason was the rise of anti-Semitism which was seeing more and more Jewish athletes forced out of established sports clubs. The Maccabi World Union grew out of that movement in 1921. The name is a reference to Judas Maccabeus, who led the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids in the 2nd century BC and is seen as a symbol of fighting spirit. The World Union’s first president was a German, Dr Heinrich Kuhn.
The first European Maccabi Games (EMG) were held in Prague in 1929. The first global Maccabiah followed three years later, in Tel Aviv. The games see Jewish amateur athletes from a vast range of countries competing in every possible discipline. Since 1950, the EMG and the Maccabiah have been held every four years, just like the Olympics.
Historic first as Germany hosts games
Given its history of Nazism, Germany was inconceivable as a host nation for a long time. For the EMG to be held in Berlin now, 70 years after the end of the Holocaust and 50 years after Germany and Israel resumed diplomatic relations, is therefore a historic moment. Foreign Minister Steinmeier extended a warm welcome to the athletes arriving in Berlin. Germans were “proud and grateful”, he said, to have had Berlin chosen as the venue for these games, particularly in view of the country’s history. Steinmeier commented on the German-Israel friendship as follows:
Israel and Germany are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations this year. It has been an improbable success story which only became possible because Israel reached out the hand of reconciliation – and because Germany faced up to its responsibility for the Holocaust.
The venue is particularly symbolic. Berlin’s Olympiapark was where German Jews were banned from taking part in the 1936 Olympics by the Nazi regime. For thousands of Jewish athletes to be holding a peaceful celebration of sport there of all places, in a spirit of equality and fairness, in Steinmeier’s view embodies the way in which, “rejecting hatred and violence, we have over the years built up a unique friendship and familiarity”.
Berlin poised for big event
From 27 July until 4 August, Berliners were treated to a real sporting extravaganza, with around 2300 athletes from 36 countries competing in 19 different disciplines. There was something for everyone in the rich and varied programme surrounding the games, which aims particularly to bring Jews and non-Jews together. The games were thus not only building bridges between the many international athletes but also feeding intercultural dialogue here in Germany. That is in part why the Federal Federal Foreign Office sponsored the Maccabi Games in this jubilee year for German-Israeli friendship.