The Makkabi Junior Games, an event held by Germany’s biggest Jewish sports association, looks to bring communities together through competition. Antisemitism remains rife in sport, however, as DW’s Felix Tamsut reports.
It’s a sunny Sunday morning on the outskirts of Munich. A group of young people are walking towards the entrance of a well-guarded compound. Security officials are using their walkie-talkies to make sure everything is safe, and the group walk in after receiving the all clear.
This is not a description of a highly-charged political convention, but rather of the first ever Makkabi Junior Games, in which young members of Germany’s biggest network of Jewish sports clubs will compete at football, basketball and other sports. Some 375 athletes between the ages of 13 and 18 took part.
Jewish sports alive in Germany
Makkabi is an international Jewish sports association active in 50 countries, with more than 400,000 members; 4,500 of which are in Germany.
After years of being open exclusively to Jews – including during the Second World War, a time when sportspeople of Jewish descent could only join specific clubs dictated by the Third Reich – Germany’s Makkabi clubs are now open to whoever wants to join, and including non-Jews from all backgrounds.
“Nobody even noticed Jewish clubs existed for a long time,” Alex Feuerherdt, a writer that runs a blog about football and politics, tells DW. “I was surprised to discover how diverse the squads are… It’s a great mixture of people that the German public should be more aware of.”
Makkabi is also trying to help in the integration of teenagers with migration background. Alfi Goldenberg, Makkabi’s Vice President, tells DW about a swimming course for Muslim females that takes place in Frankfurt. “It’s all in the spirit of equality,” he explains.
All about representation
According to some estimates, Germany’s Jewish community has about 250,000 people, a tiny fraction of the country’s some-83 million people. Many Germans will spend a lifetime without even meeting a Jew, and sport is perceived as one way the community could get itself out there.
“For me, it’s a way of showing society who’s a Jew, that there’s no difference (between Jews and other parts of society),” says Makkabi President Alon Meyer. For Meyer, it’s all about understanding what Germany’s Jewish community stands for. “It’s important for Christians, Muslims and other religious groups to understand that it’s possible to live together,” he says, adding that what he sees as one of Makkabi’s major roles is “creating ambassadors for the Jewish people among other communities.”
The effects are being felt. Feuerherdt tells of a few instances of non-Jewish players that went vocal with their support of the Jewish community as a “show of solidarity.”
Battling antisemitism with sports
Germany’s Jewish sports clubs are facing a turbulent time. Antisemitic cases are constantly making the news in the country, and many of them were reported to be in the sports pitch.
Alex Feuerherdt tells of a case in which an Iranian captain of Makkabi Köln ended up being the main witness after some antisemitic calls such as “Jewish pig” were made by an opposition player. In his testimony, the Makkabi Köln captain gave an emotional speech, calling the defendant a “coward” for denying the accusations. “I heard your antisemitic words… You call yourself a Muslim?” he said, astounding everyone else in the courtroom.
But where does the rise of antisemitic attacks come from? “They can’t mark the Jews anymore, so they mark the Jewish clubs,” Meyer explains, while adding that he feels the refugee crisis has made dealing with prejudice against Jews more of a challenge. “I feel like we’re starting from scratch.”
According to Feuerherdt, some incidents go unreported due to Jewish players worrying they’ll get a dismissive response. “People will say Jews always talk about antisemitism… They experience it so often, but at the end of the day they just want to play football.”
It’s a sentiment shared by other Makkabi employees, who believe the best solution is just to continue the work that they do. “We keep going, we keep on organizing events, to show everyone that we’re just normal people,” VP Goldenberg says. “But most of all, to have a good time, for us and for the kids.”