Saturday, December 16, 2023

Sports in Palestine: Writing History According to Zionist Standards

          Issam Khalidi

    As we browse Israeli sports historians' research, we are not surprised to find that they present Palestine as a place devoid of Palestinians. If such histories mention the Palestinians, they invariably depict them as lacking any cultural or social aspect. According to them, Zionists populated the region and brought civilization to it; that their efforts brought sports to primitive people who had never experienced them before. Efforts to distort reality and rewrite history are not new. In fact, up until 1948, Arab sports clubs in Palestine numbered about sixty-five clubs, of which fifty-five were members of the (Arab) Palestinian Sports Federation. 


     Palestinian researcher Nour Masalha explained decades ago in his study (The Expulsion of the Palestinians) that the Zionist movement knew there were, in fact, people already living in Palestine. However, they chose not to see them as full human beings deserving equal rights to the Jewish settlers. Masalha adds that the shameful Zionist slogan of Israel Zangwill, "a land without a people for a people without a land," did not mean that there were no people in Palestine, but rather that there were no people worthy of thinking within the framework of European superiority concepts that prevailed after that. [i]


 A significant part of the Zionist attitude during the Jewish immigration to Palestine was to ignore the indigenous people. This was associated with ignoring Palestine as a land inhibited by Palestinians. Although many Jews immigrated to Palestine and became Palestinian citizens, there was another concept about Palestine in their minds: Israel, or the Land of Israel, which they dreamed of.


  Even when Arabs are mentioned by these historians, they are portrayed as attacking Jewish settlements, refusing to cooperate with Zionists in sports, and rebelling against the British who liberated them from the Ottoman yoke and brought them modernity. They are also viewed as backward. Despite this, sports development among Jewish immigrants in Palestine was not hindered by their backwardness. According to Harif and Galily, the new immigrants were unfettered by the many obstacles arising from the existence of long-standing, rigid local traditions.[ii]


  These historians are very fond of the British for issuing the Balfour Declaration which was a public pledge by Britain in 1917 declaring its aim to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine where Jews constituted less than 10 percent of the population at the time. Their appreciation goes out to the British Mandate and its administration for bringing sports culture to Palestine and paving the way for Zionist sports development.


   In view of the tremendous support Jews received from the British during this time, it is essential that they continue to express their gratitude and appreciation for the support they received. As a result of British Mandate's policy in Palestine, Palestinians have no reason to express their gratitude to Britain in their literature or studies. Instead, they hold grudges and hatred for the British policy, which has brought them nothing but disasters and has been a source of much resentment on their part. Moreover, the Palestinians are not enthusiastic about the modernity (including sport) that brought to Palestine under the enforced British Mandate as part of the occupation of Palestine.


     Israeli historians state that there is no evidence that the Mandate authorities tried to enforce any specific fields of sport on the local population. Moreover, by the second half of the 1920s, sport became a means of national representation for the Jewish society. The aspiration of breaking out of the framework of the Palestinian Mandate, while at the same time continually striving to advertise the achievements of the Jewish national home and to stress its ties to diaspora Jewry, aroused the enthusiasm of local sportsmen to compete with their colleagues in the Middle East and Europe.[iii]


  There is no doubt that the British did not impose any specific sport fields on the Arabs and Jews of Palestine when they were under British rule. Because of its soft power characteristics, sport did not play a real role in the dynamics of British colonialism. As history shows, colonial powers such as the French in Algeria and the British in India never imposed sports fields on people under their colonialism. 


    Zionists used any means necessary to achieve their goals in Palestine. As part of establishing a solid relationship, it was necessary to maintain a close relationship with the British authorities in all aspects of their activities. Working closely with the British army helped them gain more privileges. Thus, they exploited the Great Revolt of 1936 – 1939.


    The Arab Revolt (known in Arabic as al-thawra al-kubra, or the Great Revolt) was the manifestation of escalating nationalist grievances, foremost among them the unprecedented rates of Jewish immigration - doubling the Jewish population from 185,000 in 1932 to 375,000 in 1935 - and ever-increasing land purchases, which the British continued to facilitate and encourage throughout the 1930s.[iv]


    Harif and Galily state that during this year [1936] the Arab population of the country started escalating their fighting tactics in protest new immigration certificates issued by the Mandate government to Jews. Since the outbreak of these events [1936 Revolt], an intensive effort was made in the Jewish Yishuv to hold sporting contests in football, swimming, water polo and hockey against the army units, to bring British soldiers closer to Zionist settlement in Palestine.[v]


    Harif and Galily claim that sports have no connection to politics which continues to be repeated even today. They accuse Arabs of combining sports with politics and refusing to cooperate and join the Palestinian Football Association.[vi] However, Zionists have always linked politics to sports whenever it served their interests. Any time it poses a danger to them, they oppose it. In the Mandate era, Zionism exploited sports to achieve its political goals. The way in which this was accomplished was by dominating the sports arena by alienating the Arabs and representing Palestine regionally and internationally with the aim of looking ‘Jewish’.


   As a matter of fact, Jewish sports were superior to Arab sports. Most of the Jews emigrated from developed industrialized European societies. In Palestine, they brought a high level of administrative organization and sports culture. The Jewish Agency provided them with support, as well as capabilities and facilities provided by the Mandate authorities. It is important to note, however, that this fact cannot be used as a justification for their hegemony and exclusivity.


   As to Palestine Football Association’s bid to join FIFA Kaufman and Galily wrote:

   “As early as 1925 Yekutieli (leader of the Maccabi Sports Organization) applied to FIFA, the international football association, for recognition of the Maccabi Association, but he soon learned that such recognition entailed setting up an Eretz Israel football association composed of all the teams represented in the land – English, Arab and Jewish, and not only those of Maccabi. In early August 1928 the Maccabi Association asked the Eretz Israel football teams to send representatives to the founding assembly of the Eretz Israel Football Association (EIFA), set to take place on 14 August in the Maccabi Eretz Israel offices on Hasolel Street in Jerusalem. Fourteen Jews and one Arab attended the meeting. The Arab representative was a member of the Nuseiba family and represented the Islamic A Nadi A-Riadi sports club [Arab Sports Club in Jerusalem]. A five-member directorate was elected: three Maccabi members and two Hapoel members. In December 1928 the Association was accepted provisionally by FIFA and on 17 May 1929 its membership became permanent.”[vii]


   It was not out of love or respect for Arabs that Nusseibeh was invited. His invitation was only to meet FIFA's request and reveal that the PFA included Arab members. In addition, the authors failed to mention the Zionists' behavior towards the Arabs after the PFA joined FIFA. They did not mention the attempts to completely dominate and Judaize this federation as well as the marginalization of Arabs.


    Despite its inability to Judaize Palestine, Zionism aimed to alienate and marginalize its people. British Mandate officials were under pressure from Zionist circles to displace Palestinian Arabs, deny their existence, and distort their civilized identities, which is still perpetuated by Israeli politicians, the media, and scholars today.[viii]


    Immediately, after being accepted in FIFA, the Jewish leadership started to dominate the Palestine Football Association by ensuring that Jews were the majority in it. This was accomplished by such strategies as imposing the Hebrew language (Arabic was subsequently dropped from PFA correspondence) and incorporating the Jewish flag (colors of the Zionist movement) in the association's logo. [ix]


    Officially, the Palestinian Football Association was admitted to the International Football Association in 1929 under the name "Palestine Football Association". This was not “Eretz Israel Football Association” as the Zionists referred to. On the official correspondence and letterhead, it said, “Football Association of the Land of Israel” on the left, and under it, “Palestine Football Association” in Arabic. A triangle in the middle has Palestine in Arabic to the right, Palestine in English to the left, and Land of Israel in Hebrew at the bottom. The Palestine Football Association Secretariat is on the left corner of the letterhead, and its Tel Aviv address is at the bottom. 


The Maccabiah Games  

  The Zionist movement devised new tricks to bring more Jewish immigrants into the country since 1924, according to Issa Al-Sifri, including smuggling and deception, posing as if they were subject to the Immigration Law restrictions, and diverting many seeking entries to Palestine before hiding them in colonies. Zionists brought in more immigrants and inspired Jewish national feelings by holding the Maccabiah Games (in 1932 and 1935).[x]


   According to George Eisen, there were several clear objectives for the Maccabiah Games that had to be achieved. He states that in the first three months of 1932, there were 1591 tourists who settled here. This may have been an extremely low estimate, as, five years later, a Royal Commission Report claimed that during 1932 and 1933, 17,900 travelers remained in the country beyond the authorized limit. Thousands of Jewish youth from all over the Diaspora gathered to “breath the atmosphere of the beloved land, listen to living Hebrew.”  Many of the young visitors never returned to their countries of residence.[xi]


  In his analysis of the definite purpose of the games, Eisen cites Yekutieli the leader of the Maccabi movement:


   The development of Jewish culture – both physical and spiritual, and the presentation of that culture to the Jewish people and to the whole world: the development of Jewish sport in the world and the emphasis of the idea that Jewish sporting athletes were not just part of their home countries but were part of the Jewish people as a whole. The emphasizing of the fact that Eretz Yisrael is the center of the Jewish world; and finally, the strengthening of the Maccabi movement.[xii]


  Eisen admits that Arab and Palestinian media campaigns were launched against these Games. First, they focused on the festival's opening, namely the military-like performance, and second, on illegal immigration. The second Games in 1935 were attended by delegations from 27 countries. He also demonstrates that because of the boycott called for by the Palestinian, Egyptian, and Syrian national movements, along with clarifications through the Arab press of this festival's nature and objectives, Syria and Egypt did not participate in the Games of 1935 [they took part in the Maccabiah of 1932].[xiii]


   He also states that the growing illegal immigration, in which the Maccabiah Games were a prominent factor, was one of the cardinal motives of growing Arab unrest, bursting into full force a year after the festival. [xiv]


  He adds that in sum, Arab opposition to the second Maccabiah Games, vocal as it was, remained in the realm of rhetoric, and no corresponding demonstration were ever carried out either by the public or by any given political party.[xv]


    It was evident that this protest was demonstrated by the news media such as Filastin and Difa’ as well as by some nationalists who wrote to these newspapers. At the time, the Palestinian national movement was preoccupied with issues of national importance. Additionally, it was widely perceived by the leading national institutions that sport was of marginal relevance.


    Eisen contributes the lack of response to the political agitation by the general Arab public to the economic prosperity, and the consequent tranquility, in contemporary Palestine:


“This relatively undisturbed public posture vis-à-vis the Jewish festival was especially evident in such Arab or partially Arab towns as Jaffa and Tel Aviv, where the populace undoubtedly benefited from the influx of Jewish visitors. The furor over the Maccabiah episode faded into oblivion as quickly as it had come. New and more pertinent issues surfaced and occupied the attention of the Arab, Jewish, and British communities."[xvi] 



As new Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, Baruch Kimmerling, Joel Magdal and others challenged traditional versions of Israeli history and recorded history objectively. Israeli sports historians did not follow in the same vein as their colleagues. Zionist ideology continues to be perpetuated through their works. 


  While all peoples of the world used sport to raise their young generations, strengthen friendships with other peoples, and develop their societies, Zionists used it to advance their ideological agenda through dominance, deceit, marginalization of the Arabs to create a state that led to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It is a phenomenon that has never been seen before in human history.



[i] Masalha Nur, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Palestinian Studies, 1992), p. 238.

[ii]  Harif, Haggai; Galily, Yair. “Sport and Politics in Palestine, 1918-1948: Football as a Mirror Reflecting the Relations between Jews and Britons” . Soccer and Society, Vol. 4, no. 1, (Spring 2003), p. 41-56.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Howar, Sachar. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 189.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Harif, H: Galily, Y. “Sport and Politics in Palestine,

[vii] Kaufman Haim, Galily Yair, The early development of Hebrew Football in Eretz Israel, Soccer & Society, 2007, № 1, p. 81-95.

[viii] Shoufani, Elias, Almuwjas fi Tarikh Filastin, (Munth Fajr Attarikh Hatta 1949), [A Summary of the Political History of Palestine (From the Dawn of History until 1949)], (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies), p. 409.

[ix] Khalidi, IssamOne Hundred Years of Football in Palestine, (Amman: Dar al-Shorook 2013), p.

[x] Al-Sifri Issa, Filastin bayn al-Intidabwa al-Sahyuniyya [Palestine between the Mandate and Zionism] (Jaffa: Maktabat Filastin al-Jadida,1937), p. 215 – 216. 

[xi] Eisen Goerge, The Maccabiah Games: A History of Jewish Olympics, (Maryland: University of Maryland, 1979).

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid

[xvi]  Ibid

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