“Arguably, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries defined a period when the “problem” of the body and the “problem” of nationalism came together in complex and interesting ways in many different parts of the world…”(Alter,2004) The ensuing rise of state sponsored physical education and sports were closely linked with the rise of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was one of several parallel movements that harnessed physical culture as a means to consolidate a revived national identity.
Zionism is the Jewish political movement that, in its broadest sense, has supported the self-determination of the Jewish people in a sovereign Jewish national homeland. Throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century there were numerous grassroots groups promoting the national resettlement of the Jews in what was termed their “ancestral homeland”, as well as the revitalization and cultivation of the Hebrew language.
Max Simon Nordau (1849 – 1923), born in Hungary, was a Zionist leader, physician, author, and social critic. In his opening speech at the 1898 second World Zionist Congress, Nordau conceived one of Zionism’s most famous, most charged, and most challenging ideas: “the muscular Jew”, thus marking the start of a new awareness of physical culture among Jews, particularly in Europe. Coining the term “muscular Judaism” (German: muskel-Judenthum) as a descriptor of a Jewish culture and religion directed its adherents to aspire to moral and corporeal ideals. Discipline, agility and strength would result in a stronger, more physically-assured Jew who would outshine the long-held stereotype of the weak, intellectually-sustained Jew. Nordau would further explore the concept of the “muscle Jew” in a 1900 article, linking this new Jewish ideal with the almost forgotten legends of Jewish military might. The article was published in the Jewish Gymnastics Journal, which was founded to serve as “the official organ of Jewish gymnastics association.” Presner notes: “As a redemptive figure, the muscle Jew represents both a future ideal and the return to a heroic Jewish traditions characterized by the likes of Bar Kochba and the Maccabees.” (Presner, 2007)
This view was adapted by the founding fathers of Zionism who regarded gymnastics and sports important activities and introduced a major revision of the attitude toward physical culture. (Kaufman, 2005)
The result of this new wind which blew in the Zionist organization was the establishment of Jewish gymnastics clubs all over Europe, serving as a framework for nationalistic activity.
In 1921, the political changes wrought by World War I led to a new umbrella of sport organization-the Maccabi World Union (MWU). The MWU united most of the Jewish athletic clubs. The regulations of the organization stated: “The goal of the Union is the physical and moral rejuvenation of Jews for the sake of restoration and existence of the Jewish land and people.” (Zimri, 1968)
From the end of the nineteenth century Jewish society brought together a new national identity with a new cultural component: physical culture. This culture included hygiene, physical health, outdoor activity and self defense. In the broader sense physical culture included physical education. This process was part of an existential necessity of a society that had re-inhabited its own land. Therefore, physical culture played an important role in the process of the revival of the Jewish nation in its land. The European Jewish Enlightenment movement tried to restore the honor of the “body” and “worldly life” to Jewish thought and life.
The “Exilic Jew” was a term which originated as a Zionist antithesis to the Diaspora communities. Vitkin (1908) describes the Jew as passive and weak, one who deals with “impracticable business” (Yiddish: Luftgesch), meaning business devoid of real labor and honor, and who suffers at the hands of non-Jews without reacting.
The Zionist movement’s goal was to create a new image of the Jew in the land of Israel: active, robust, agricultural and capable of defending himself against non-Jews. The integration of physical culture in Israel was connected to a wide national, political and social vision, in affinity with Zionist ideology, and was considered an important component in the creation of the “new Jew”.