The Terrible Jewish Irony at the Heart of “Chariots of Fire”

March 1, 2021 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

The film Chariots of Fire, released 40 years ago this month, tells the story of two real-life British athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, with Olympic aspirations. Abrahams—a Jew—faces often subtle but ever-present anti-Semitism, while Liddell—a devout Protestant—faces disapproval for his ultimate decision not to run on the Christian Sabbath. Meir Soloveichik comments on the movie, and the story behind it:

In the film, Abrahams’s response to anti-Semitism is not Jewish pride but assimilation. . . . When he is confronted at Cambridge by anti-Semitic dons who accuse him of interest only in his own glory, Abrahams indignantly insists: “I am a Cambridge man first and last, I am an Englishman first and last; what I have achieved, and what I intend to achieve, is for my family, for my university, and for my country.”

All this accords with the real life of Harold Abrahams. . . . In the 1920s, the precise moment in which the film is set, Abrahams wrote an article in an Anglo-Jewish publication encouraging English Jews to ignore Jewish Sabbath restrictions in order to compete.

Though Abrahams ultimately took in two Jewish refugee children during the war, he is remembered today as one of the most prominent British voices against a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Despite pleas in Anglo-Jewry, Abrahams, whose concern was whether it was “ultimately in the best interest of world sport” to withdraw, served as a British broadcaster at Hitler’s games.

Here, then, is a terrible irony. Chariots of Fire . . . is a tale not only of one Jewish runner but of Jews throughout our age who ran away from who they were. . . . Jews watching the film today must draw spiritual inspiration from the Christian Liddell rather than Harold Abrahams.

Read more on Commentary:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now