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


Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat