The Rise and Fall of Jewish Domination in Sports
A century ago, Jews built the world's largest sporting organization and traveled the world to showcase their athletic prowess.
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In the midst of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, football (soccer) isn’t exactly a topic that brings Jews to mind. But, once upon a time, Jews were among the sport’s best.
In 1909, two Austrian Zionists and prominent Jewish businessmen founded the first Jewish sports club1 and named it Hakoach (הכח), meaning “the strength” or “the power” in Hebrew.
At the time, Jews in Vienna numbered 180,0002 — about 10-percent of the city’s population3 — and these Austrian Zionists were significantly influenced by a doctrine called “Muscular Judaism” which contributed to increased self-confidence among Jews, combined with evolving attitudes toward physical fitness.45
“Muscular Judaism” is a term coined that Max Nordau coined in his speech at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, where he spoke about the need to design “the new Jew.”6
More specifically, Nordau advocated for a transformation to “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed” Jews that would vanquish negative perceptions of them.7 He believed “Muscular Judaism” — mental and physical strength — would be an imposing response to “Jewish distress” in antisemitism-infested Europe.8
David Herbst, Hakoach’s president from 1928 to 1938, echoed this sentiment, saying:
“In the days of our forefathers, we Jews have completely forgotten the old and true words in the education of our children: Mens sana in corpore sano! We only thought that the new generation should be educated, we neglected what today the whole world recognizes as the only proper educational principle: to make our bodies strong.”9
During its first year, Hakoach’s members competed in fencing, field hockey, track and field, wrestling, swimming, and football — eventually expanding its roster to other athletics and attracting Jewish athletes from across Europe.
Hakoach’s football team was one of the first to market itself globally through frequent travel, attracting thousands of Jewish fans in London and New York, as well as South America, Africa and, of course, the United States. They also garnered the attention of prominent Jewish figures, such as author Franz Kafka.
After touring Germany in the early 1920s, a prominent newspaper commented that:
“Hakoach had helped to do away with the fairy tale about the physical inferiority of Jews.”10
Instead of selling jerseys and other merchandise, Hakoach sold Zionism, even though Zionist sporting activities, like Zionism itself, remained associated with minority groups, even in Vienna.
“The reason for this was that the Jewish sports scene had become more diverse,” according to Dr. Matthias Marschik, a professor at the University of Vienna. “There were not only Jewish sportsmen and women, clubs and associations that were clearly committed to Judaism and/or Zionism, but also individuals that neither wanted nor felt obliged to identify with their ‘Jewishness’ in the context of sport.”
Regardless, the team regularly faced antisemitism during its travels, so they created an unconventional kind of security: