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Beijing 2008: Where are all our medals?

Israel can never expect any significant Olympic achievement until physical exercise and athletic prowess become as important on the football field as they are on the battlefield
Adam Afterman is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University. Professor Afterman’s main fields of research are medieval Jewish philosophy, kabbalah, and Jewish mysticism. His most recent book, And They Shall Be One Flesh: On the Language of Mystical Union in Judaism


When Shahar Zubari, Israel’s only Olympic champion, landed in Ben Gurion Airport, he was received with the pomp and circumstance of a four-time gold medalist, at least. This 21-year-old windsurfer, with his solitary bronze medal, saved our national honor, sparing the Israeli team the humiliation of returning from Beijing empty-handed and bare-chested. Without detracting from Zubari’s achievement, we must ask ourselves – now that the Olympic festivities are over – why has Israel done so poorly?
Shahar Zubari, Israel's sole medal winner in Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, from shaharzubari.com
The obvious answer is, of course, that sport is simply not our forte. We Jews are a people of the mind, not of the muscle. We pride ourselves on our intellectual, rather than physical, accomplishment. We do exceedingly well in the Chess Olympics. Other fields are just beyond us.
Except that they’re not. Those who claim Jewish physical inferiority by way of an excuse would do well to remember the Mark Spitzes  and Agnes Keletis  of the world – the hundreds of talented Jewish sportsmen and women who have achieved outstanding athletic success. Jews, in fact, have been the recipients of more than 300 Olympic medals. Of these, Israel has won seven.  
This is where the problem lies: not in Jewish genetics, but in Israeli indifference. Ironically, the state which was founded on the commitment to create a Muskeljudentum (muscular Jewry), which produces generations of robust farmers and mighty warriors, has never learnt to appreciate the value of sports. Physical exercise and athletic prowess may be necessary on the battlefield, but on the football field they are completely superfluous, the luxury of the privileged few.  
In this respect, the Modern Israeli attitude echoes that of the Talmudic sages who, fighting the popular appeal of the idolatrous Roman games, decreed that “visit[ing] stadiums… cause[s] one to neglect the Torah” (Avodah Zara 18b). Similarly, Israelis regard sports (though no longer implicated in pagan rites) as a plentiful waste of time, a pleasant diversion at best. Failing to recognize the vital importance of exercise to one’s physical health and spiritual well-being, Israel is a society entirely devoid of a culture of sport, where courts and facilities are left to crumble away, unused; where physical education is considered the least important part of the curriculum, and classes are little more than a free period; where the only really popular sport is spectatorship, and the only form of competition is who can shout louder from the sidelines.
Israelis will never attain the “normal, healthy life” Zionism predicted for them unless they come to value physical exercise, not just as a means of survival, but as an end to itself. Sport must become a priority in our schools, our leisure time and our community life. Only once sport assumes its rightful place in our existence may we begin to expect any significant Olympic achievement. And, who knows, perhaps when every school has a fully equipped gym, and every town – a proper basketball court, we may one day come to witness the “2032 Olympics, Jerusalem.”
Written with Gila Fine

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