The First World War saw sporting activity grind to a virtual halt. There were a few sporadic attempts at local activities, but with the Turks terrorizing much of the population and sending others into involuntary exile, there was little possibility of sustaining meaningful activity.
When the British replaced the Turks, however, the picture changed radically. In the first years of the Mandate, the relations between the British administration and the local Jewish population were generally positive and the Yishuv gained greatly in many ways from the British presence. Among other things, the world of sport received a great boost.
The British brought with them both a sporting tradition and a strong enthusiasm for sport. It is hardly surprising that healthy competition developed between the resident populations and the British with so many troops and other British functionaries stationed in Palestine. Soccer, the most popular of British games, now began to flourish. There is very little record of the playing of soccer before the War, although presumably there must have been some, but now that game started to take off. Athletics too, went through a major period of development at this time.
Maccabi had been developing for several years as an organization in Eretz Yisrael. The Rishon LeTzion club had transformed itself as early as 1909 into the central element of Maccabi Tel Aviv with the addition of a few other groups, and other Maccabi clubs had developed in the next few years around the country. In 1912, in a meeting in the central hall of the Herzaliah Gymnasium, now located in the recently founded Tel Aviv, the Israeli federation of Maccabi was formed, and over the next period more clubs joined so that Maccabi was the central sporting element in the country.
Meanwhile in the international Maccabi organization, initiatives were stirring for the organization of a kind of Jewish Olympic games, the Maccabiah. The idea had been thrown around generally over the years but the first concrete initiative was made within the governing body of Maccabi in the late 1920’s by Yosef Yekutieli, one of the heads of Israeli Maccabi and a founder of the Israeli football Association. Yekutieli had definite aims for the games.
He saw them as:
The development of Jewish culture – both physical and spiritual, and the presentation of that culture to the Jewish people and to the whole world: the development of Jewish sport in the world and the emphasis of the idea that Jewish sporting athletes were not just part of their home countries but were part of the Jewish people as a whole. The emphasizing of the fact that Eretz Yisrael is the centre of the Jewish world; and finally, the strengthening of the Maccabi movement.
His proposal was finally accepted in 1929. Preparations began for the first Maccabiah, scheduled for 1932, in order to mark the passing of exactly 1800 years since the beginning of the Bar Kochba rebellion.
Preparations were delayed by the outbreak of the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine but work was resumed and the games were held on time. A new Maccabi stadium next to the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv was finished just days before the opening of the games. It contained 20,000 places in all including 5,000 seats and was filled for the opening ceremony that included 2,500 participants in a gymnastics display. Altogether, in the games themselves some 390 athletes took part representing fourteen different countries including Jewish athletes from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. The evening before the games a huge gala ball was held which included dramatic presentations from the country’s top theatre companies, and the games themselves provided perhaps few substantive sporting achievements, but proved a great success and created the desire for more.
Three years later, the second Maccabiah took place. This was on a larger scale. Some 1350 athletes from twenty-eight different countries arrived for the games together with a thousand accompanists of one kind or other. Many stayed in Palestine after the games. This is hardly surprising. The noose was tightening around the necks of the Jews of Europe and the British had severely limited the numbers of potential Olim – Jewish immigrants. Many used the games to overcome the limitations of the British system and to make their way to perceived safety. The most pronounced case was the Bulgarian delegation of whom all 350 stayed in the country, and the Lithuanians were not far behind them.
By this time, there was a great variety of sporting events. A swimming pool had just been opened in Bat Galim near Haifa (which had been up till now the centre of water sports in Palestine) and in addition to the pool events, judo and ju-jitsu, weightlifting and bicycle racing were all now on the Maccabiah menu in addition to the more central athletic events which had provided the basis for the first Maccabiah games. The next games were scheduled for 1938, but for a whole variety of reasons, they were never held. The riots in Eretz Yisrael (the “intifada” of 1936-39), financial difficulties, the situation of European Jewry and the opposition of the Mandate authorities who were concerned at the possibility of thousands more illegal immigrants, all worked together to postpone the event.
In the end, the next Maccabiah would not be held until 1950, and by that time many things had changed. The powerful delegations of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe had all disappeared in the Holocaust, and Israeli sport had grown increasingly strong, with improved facilities and more professional training. Only 800 participants from nineteen different countries took part, but in the new national stadium of Ramat Gan, some fifty thousand spectators would stand and applaud the world’s first international Jewish competition in a Jewish state.