The Ingathering of the Sportsmen
Since the early part of the 20th century, sports in the Land of Israel have been firmly linked to politics. The Maccabi movement, founded in Jerusalem in 1911, was initially affiliated with the General Zionist movement, the forerunner of the Liberal party which subsequently became a partner in the Likud party. But the Maccabi movement quickly became depoliticized.
This happened less rapidly with Hapoel, which was founded in 1924 and affiliated with the Histadrut - General Federation of Labor, dominated by successive labor parties. The declared aim of Hapoel from the outset was socialist - to bring sports to the masses, not to produce champions. But by the time the State was established, Hapoel's flagship sports teams were geared to chasing championships rather than encouraging mass participation. The Betar sports movement, founded in 1924, was affiliated with the rightist Revisionist Movement, and the Elitzur sports movement, established in 1939, was set up by the religious Hapoel Mizrachi. The Football Association, the first pre-state sporting federation, established in 1928, was the first of 14 umbrella sports organizations to be founded. These sporting organizations absorbed hundreds of leading sportsmen who immigrated when anti-Semitism intensified in Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR during the 1930s.
Throughout the early years of the State, sports were inextricably linked to political parties, with the exception of Maccabi. Consequently the Hapoel movement, supported by the Histadrut and Labor party, flourished in comparison to the other sporting bodies. By 1970 Hapoel boasted 300 branches with 85,000 members, while Maccabi had 75 branches and 18,000 members, Elitzur had 80 branches and 10,000 members and Betar had 74 branches and 5,000 members. The a-political Academic Sports Association (ASA), founded in 1953, had nine branches and 5,000 members.
Above and beyond membership in these organizations, hundreds of thousands of Israelis devote leisure time to participation sports such as soccer, basketball, tennis and running; swimming and diving; and table tennis, tenpin bowling and beach-ball games. The regular annual marathons in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee attract thousands of runners and tens of thousands of participants in the shorter "fun runs." The Jerusalem March, a hike up to the capital, attracts 15,000 "walkers" annually.
The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) also have sports teams, as physical fitness is regarded an integral part of combat readiness. Through the Council For Sporting Excellence, run by the Ministry of Education's Sports Authority, several hundred talented sportsmen and sportswomen recommended by the Council are allowed by the IDF to serve in non-combat positions near their place of training and are given leave of absence to compete in major competitions abroad.
Separating Sports from Politics
From the 1980s onward sports have been disentangled from politics, though the various movements maintain their old links. Hapoel remains affiliated with the Histadrut but most of its leading sports teams have been sold off to private entrepreneurs. The same is true of Betar. Elitzur remains rooted in its religious affiliations, and while there are leading professional basketball teams like Elitzur Netanya, there are no leading soccer Elitzur teams because professional soccer is played mainly on the Sabbath in Israel.
But if the linkage between sports and politics has declined since the 1970s, it has intensified in the international arena as the country's Arab neighbors sought to isolate the Jewish state from 1973 onwards. Ironically, this tactic backfired. For while Israel was expelled from all Asian sports' federations, it was eventually accepted into the European sports' bodies, enabling the country to compete in many of the world's most prestigious competitions such as the European Athletics Championships, the European Swimming Championships, the UEFA football cups, the European Basketball cups and all other major European tournaments.