My Word: The winning game

Along with the Biden visit, another festive event is causing traffic congestion in Jerusalem this week – the 21st Maccabiah.

 FIREWORKS ARE seen at the opening ceremony of the 20th Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem in July 2017. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
FIREWORKS ARE seen at the opening ceremony of the 20th Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem in July 2017.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The threat of traffic jams in Jerusalem during the visit of US President Joe Biden this week took me down memory lane. I’m celebrating the 43rd anniversary of my arrival in Israel and both the country and I have come a long way since I stepped off the plane and kissed the tarmac (aware of how kitschy it seemed but also acutely conscious of the fact that it was now or never.) 

In 1979, there were fewer roads, far fewer cars, a smaller population and an atmosphere far from the modern, thriving hi-tech nation that thrives here today.

Most of the air defense systems on display for the president at Ben-Gurion International Airport this week were in the realm of science fiction four decades ago. I often look back in wonder at how I managed with poor Hebrew and not even a home phone, let alone a smartphone with apps to help figure out transport options and keep in touch.

It sometimes feels like I’ve been sucked into a time tunnel and the older I get, the faster I slide through the time chute.

I arrived in 1979 as Gali Atari and Milk & Honey brought Israel its second consecutive Eurovision Song Contest win. “Hallelujah” could have been my theme song. Not that it was all roses. A poster on the wall of the Jewish Agency office in London where details of my family’s aliyah were discussed starkly warned: “We never promised you a rose garden.” No kidding. Far from finding the Garden of Eden, we were pick-pocketed at the airport and locked out of the absorption center because the emissary who had made no commitments regarding our future happiness had neglected to tell anyone we would be arriving.

Gali Atari and Milk and Honey, Israel's second-ever Eurovision winner, perform in Jerusalem in 1979 (credit: SCREENSHOT/KAN)Gali Atari and Milk and Honey, Israel's second-ever Eurovision winner, perform in Jerusalem in 1979 (credit: SCREENSHOT/KAN)

Nonetheless, I stayed, served in the army, studied at university, got a job at this newspaper and am now the proud mother of a Sabra soldier. More than two-thirds of my life – and more than half the lifetime of the modern state – have passed experiencing firsthand both the thorns and the roses, the fears and the tears of joy.

One reason for the shock wave of reminiscences was the realization that half a century has passed since I was set on the path that would take me to Israel. The roots of my aliyah lie in Germany. No, not what you think. Or maybe that too. When Palestinian terrorists perpetrated the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games, I was 11, a competitive swimmer and in love with Mark Spitz. Spitz was quickly whisked out of the Olympic Village to safety while a swimmer I knew from my own British club remained in the Games. My young mind grappled to work out why the American super swimmer was at risk when a non-Jewish member of the British swim team was not. Why were only the Israelis and Jews in danger? And then I understood the connection. Israel wasn’t just an abstract name in my prayer book. It really existed. And I desperately wanted to go there. Palestinian terror turned me into a Zionist. I think of it as my personal victory over terrorism. 

The Olympic massacre, in which 11 Israelis were murdered – some of them after being brutally tortured – was a turning point not only in my life. It was then that terrorists realized the power of hijacking a major event to grab the spotlight. Whereas once it was mainly Israelis and Jews who were the targets, today global jihad ensures that nobody is safe. Anywhere. The killing games go on. 

Secretary-General of the Fatah Central Committee Jibril Rajoub – the archetypal terrorist-turned-functionary – uses his positions as chairman of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and head of the Palestinian Football Association to politicize sports and campaign against normalization of ties with Israel. Similarly, Iran still demands its sportsmen and -women drop out of competitions in which they might end up competing with (and losing to) the Israeli team. Talk about bad sports.

It’s sobering to think that when I made aliyah in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was completing the process of taking over Iran and turning it into the Islamic Republic. It is the threat from Iran today that is creating a new reality in the Middle East and beyond. In 1979, the peace between Israel and Egypt was nascent; peace with Jordan was an unrealized dream; and the warm peace that now exists with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco since the 2020 Abraham Accords was not on the horizon. Now, no one is surprised that Biden will be traveling from Israel to Saudi Arabia to discuss the Iranian threat among other burning issues. Iran and its terror proxies including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen are not Israel’s worry alone.

The Maccabiah

ALONG WITH the Biden visit, another festive event is causing traffic congestion in Jerusalem this week – the 21st Maccabiah. Dubbed “The Jewish Olympics,” this is no ordinary sporting event. Some 10,000 athletes from 80 countries are competing in the quadrennial event this year, but when it comes to the Maccabiah, the saying that participation is more important than winning is as true as it is clichéd. 

The Maccabiah is more a means of fostering Jewish identity and continuity than sporting achievement. Nonetheless, it can boast “a pool” of talent. It was here the world got its first glimpse of Spitz’s potential, for example, when the 15-year-old won four gold medals in the 1965 Games. The Maccabiah that year also brought basketball player Tal Brody from the US to Israel, leading his team to a gold. Brody later immigrated and became a local legend, best known for declaring in his strong American accent following Maccabi Tel Aviv’s win against CSKA Moscow in 1977: “Anahnu al hamapa ve’anahnu nisharim al hamapa...” (“We’re on the map and we’re staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything!”)

The Maccabiah is a family affair, and the Diaspora competitors, immigrant Israelis and Sabras are united by more than their love of sport. At least one married couple first met at the Games and in 2001 – how fast the years have sped by – I interviewed basketball coach Todd Schayes after he carried a banner at the opening ceremony reading (in Hebrew): “Single American male looking for Israeli wife. Staying at the Hilton Hotel, TA.” The Tel Aviv hotel’s switchboard crashed as some 3,000 young women and quite a few Jewish mothers made a determined play for the bachelor.

The Maccabiah, like the Olympics, has not all been fun and games. The Maccabiah’s lowest point came when four Australians were killed and scores injured when a shoddily constructed pedestrian bridge over the Yarkon River collapsed during the 1997 opening ceremony. The tragedy was to a large extent the result of Israeli “Trust me” (Smoch alay) mentality. It was a painful reminder, not always heeded, that the country needs to treat safety as seriously as it takes security. 

As an environment reporter working on a series of articles on water pollution at the time, it was devastating to discover that most of the fatalities and serious injuries were a result of the polluted river water. Fortunately, the country has cleaned up its act since then, though there is still a way to go.

Although Biden’s visit is concentrating on the Iranian issue, this week Israel and the US announced a “framework for a strategic dialogue in the field of advanced technologies, focusing on the climate crisis, pandemic readiness, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.” This, too, demonstrates how far we’ve come over the years. Ditto, Israel’s rapidly growing population, which was approximately 3.8 million at the end of 1979 and now stands at more than 9.5 million –  a blessing and a challenge. 

Immigrants of all ages come from around the globe. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is leading to a rise in the number of olim from both those countries and neighboring ones. And every summer, planeloads of new immigrants arrive from North America on special Nefesh B’Nefesh flights, hopefully making the aliyah experience easier than my prickly homecoming all those years ago. My message to all the newcomers, and the world at large: Give Israel a sporting chance and it’s a win-win situation.

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