When Fencing Was a Jewish Sport

Jan. 30 2019

So prominent were Jews in fencing in the first half of the 20th century that Jewish fencers won Olympic medals for Austria, France, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, and Britain. Robert Rockaway explains:

Young Jews have always viewed participating in sports as a means of integrating and gaining acceptance among their non-Jewish peers and within the larger society. This held true for Jewish university students in Germany, Austria, and Hungary during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only there, fencing and dueling with swords became the Jewish students’ sports of choice. They did so because fencing was considered a path to climb the social ladder. In addition, dueling against non-Jews was a way for Jews to show their mettle and offered a means to defend Jewish honor, especially in a time of rising anti-Semitism.

Even Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, enthused about fencing. As a journalist, Herzl wrote articles about fencing duels between Jews and French anti-Semites in the late 19th century. Herzl himself once offered to duel a Viennese anti-Semite. He was not bluffing. As a child, he had been trained to use a sword and fought a duel as part of his initiation into Albia, a German student dueling fraternity. Herzl believed that “a half-dozen duels would very much raise the social position of Jews.”

Because of widespread anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish students were excluded from many university fraternities and athletic associations. Consequently, they created fraternities and sporting clubs of their own. Their dueling frequently took place within the confines of the Jewish environment. But once they engaged in competition with non-Jews, they achieved a reputation as fierce duelists. As a consequence of their ability and competitiveness, numbers of Jewish fencers became champions in their countries and in the Olympics. Olympic fencing competition was a means by which young Jews could express their patriotism and love of country and a way to show the world that Jews could compete with non-Jews at the highest level and win. In fact, Jewish athletes have won more Olympic medals for fencing than for any other sport.

This is true not only of Jewish men. In the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, the gold, silver, and bronze medals went to women fencers—Hungarian, German, and Austrian, respectively—who had a single Jewish parent, although none considered herself a Jew.

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More about: Austrian Jewry, History & Ideas, Hungarian Jewry, Sports, Theodor Herzl

European Aid to the Middle East Is Shaped by a Political Agenda

Feb. 18 2019

The EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Unit dispenses millions of dollars in economic and humanitarian assistance to dozens of countries every year. Although it claims to operate on principles of strict neutrality, independent of any political motivation and giving priority to the neediest cases, a look at its activities in the Middle East suggests an entirely different approach, as Hillel Frisch writes:

[T]he Middle East is the overwhelming beneficiary of EU humanitarian aid—nearly 1 billion of just over 1.4 billion euros. . . . The bulk of the funds goes toward meeting the costs of assistance to Syrian refugees, followed by smaller sums to Iraq, Yemen, “Palestine,” and North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, receives less than one-third of that amount. The problem with such allocations is that the overwhelming majority of people living in dire poverty reside in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Bangladesh. . . . The Palestinians, who are richer on average than those living in the poorest states of the world, . . . receive over six euros per capita, while the populations of the poorest states receive less than one-eighth of that amount. . . .

Even less defensible is the EU’s claim to political neutrality. Its favoritism toward the Palestinians on this score is visible as soon as one enters terms into the general search function on the European Commission’s website. Enter “Palestine” and you get 20,737 results. Enter “Ethiopia” and you get almost the same figure, despite massive differences in population size (Ethiopia’s 100 million versus fewer than 5 million Palestinians), geographic expanse (Ethiopia is 50 times the size of “Palestine”), and degree of sheer suffering. The Syrian crisis, which is said to have led to the loss of a half-million lives, merits not many more site results than “Palestine.”

One of the foci of the website’s reports [on the Palestinians] is the plight of 35,000 Bedouin whom the EU assists, often in clear violation of the law, in Area C—the part of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control. The hundreds of thousands of Bedouin in Sinai, however, the plight of whom is readily acknowledged even by Egyptian officials, gets no mention, even though Egypt is a recipient of EU aid. . . .

Clearly, the EU’s approach to aid allocation has nothing to do with impartiality, true social-welfare needs, or humanitarian considerations. [Instead], it favors allocations to Syrian refugees above Yemeni refugees because of the higher probability that Syrian refugees will find their way to Europe. . . . The recipients of European largesse who are next in line [to Syrians], in relative terms, are the Palestinians. [This particular policy] can be attributed primarily to the EU’s hostility toward Israel, its rightful historical claims, and its security needs.

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More about: Europe and Israel, European Union, Israel & Zionism, Palestinians