Who is a Jew: at the Maccabiah Games

Had D.T. been born in Australia, he would not have been competing in the Maccabiah Games. But fortunately for this six-foot-seven basketball player, whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not, he was born in America, where the Maccabi organization’s “Who is a Jew” policy is considerably less stringent than Down Under. While Maccabi Australia adheres to Jewish law when it comes to Maccabiah eligibility – only athletes with a Jewish mother can compete – the Americans also accept athletes with a Jewish father.

“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.” In the absence of an overarching policy- Maccabi World Union (MWU) allows each country to determine its own entry criteria- D.T.’s story highlights the wide disparity among the 55 delegations to the Jewish Olympics when it comes to determining who is eligible to compete.

The South Africans, along with the Australians, are among the strictest. “You have to have a Jewish mother in order to compete in the Maccabiah [for South Africa],” says Mervyn Tankelowitz, vice-chairman of Maccabi South Africa. “Halakhically [according to Jewish law], you’re only considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish, and those are our rules.” Australia also abides “very strictly” by that definition, says Phil Filler, president of Maccabi Australia, adding that sometimes rabbis are called upon to certify the Jewishness of competitors. “It can create difficulties and angst, and [turning people away] is not a very pleasant thing to have to do, but at the end of the day, constitutionally, we’re only open to Jewish people.” Filler adds that he does not consider those teams with more liberal acceptance criteria “to have an unfair advantage.”

Both the Argentineans and the Dutch fall into the more-liberal category. The Argentinians have the most flexible entry criteria, also accepting non-Jews married to Jews and their children. 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.

“We are very open-minded in our organization. One family introduces another family, who introduces another, and we are growing. We are trying to build a strong community. We believe we are all Jews- whether we have the right papers or not”and we are very proud to have such a large delegation [of 302], and to be able to show solidarity with Israel at this time. If we placed restriction on top of restriction, we would have arrived here with a delegation of 10.”

The Dutch, who have their largest-ever delegation, 140, at this year’s games, do not allow non-Jewish partners of Jews to compete, but do accept anyone who has at least one Jewish grandmother. “We follow the rules of the Liberal movement in Holland [a progressive stream of Judaism],” says Frits Barend, head of the Dutch delegation. “If you have a Jewish grandmother, then you automatically have a Jewish mother or father, and that is enough for us. A Jewish grandfather is not. Sometimes, it is hard. We have had [male] Holocaust survivors who wanted their grandchildren to go to the Maccabiah, but we have had to turn them away. We have to draw the line somewhere.”

America and Canada have adopted similar guidelines: competitors must have either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father, and must not practice another religion. Canadian delegation head Allen Gerskup says he is happy to bring athletes with little or no Jewish upbringing to the games, as long as they fit these criteria. “If we can bring someone to Israel and expose them to Judaism and Israel, I think we can make a real difference to their lives,” he says.

Ron Carner, vice president of Maccabi USA, cites the example of swimmer Deborah Kory, whose first Jewish experience came at the 1993 Maccabiah. Kory, one of the stars of the games, stayed in Israel after the Maccabiah, became religious, and later worked for Maccabi USA. Unlike most of the other teams, the Americans also require that their support staff, like coaches and medics, adhere to their criteria.

“It’s very easy if you have a Jewish population of six million,” says Holland’s Barend, whose delegation includes several non-Jewish coaches and medics. “It’s not at all easy for us to find high-quality Jewish coaches who will take four weeks vacation – including preparations for the games – in a community of less than 40,000.” While several of the delegation leaders said they had been pressured to include athletes whose Jewishness did not meet their criteria, none of those heading teams that adopt more liberal policies said they had faced criticism at home over their entry requirements.

Ricky Philip, the head of the 450-strong British delegation, which requires that athletes have one Jewish parent, says there has been “no controversy” over this policy, which runs counter to the more stringent approach adopted by most British Jewish institutions. “If an athlete has one Jewish parent and wants to be involved in Jewish sport, we’re not going to deny them,” he says.

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. As for teams from abroad, Maccabi World Union executive director Eyal Tiberger says his organization adopts a non-interventionist approach, preferring not to “check what type” of Jews are being admitted. “If you declare you are a Jew and the Maccabi organization within your community accepts this, then you can participate. We don’t interfere with their regulations.”

But Tiberger says that the Maccabiah does have acceptance rules. Anyone with one Jewish grandparent can compete, he says, reflecting the criteria enshrined in the Law of Return. “The main idea is to get as many people as possible active in our clubs. One of the strengths of our organization is that it reaches out to unaffiliated [Jews] – to those not active in youth movements and other Jewish organizations.”

Representatives of the Orthodox establishment in Israel are not overly perturbed by the fact that most of the Maccabiah delegations do not adhere to Jewish law when it comes to selecting their teams. “Participating in the Maccabiah is not a certification of Jewishness. It’s a sports competition,” says MK Avraham Ravitz, who belongs to the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. “It doesn’t matter to me if ther e are competitors whose mother and father aren’t Jewish. But no one should mistake it for a stamp of Jewishness or a conversion process.”


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