A grassroots petition urging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for a minute of silence at this year’s London games in memory of the Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972 already has attracted more than 20,000 signatures. The response so far has surprised even those most passionate about it.
“This is on a big scale and a different way than we could pull it off,” said Ankie Spitzer, widow of Andrei Spitzer, the fencing coach who was held hostage and murdered on Sept. 5, 1972, along with 10 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation to the Munich games.
“It’s heartwarming. I just read the petition [the online comments], and it’s marvelous,” Spitzer said in a telephone interview from Israel, where she lives. “I usually have words, but in this case, it’s very special.”
Spitzer, along with Ilana Romano, widow of weightlifter Yosef Romano, recently asked Jacques Rogge, the president of the IOC, for a minute of silence during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Games on July 27. The families have made similar requests since the 1976 games in Montreal, but to no avail. The IOC has rebuffed them, saying that to do so would be a political act and that the Arab countries would boycott the games.
This time, however, Spitzer partnered with the Jewish Community Center in Rockland County, across the border in New York. Together, they posted the IOC petition at www.change.org, an online organization that aids grassroots advocacy groups in obtaining a wider reach. The address for the petition is http://chn.ge/munich11.
JCC Rockland’s advocacy on behalf of the Munich 11 goes back to 2010, when its board of directors decided to dedicate the hosting of the JCC Maccabi Games in Rockland this summer to their memory. A series of 11 events leading up to the games, which begin on August 12, also are dedicated to the 11 slain Israeli Olympians. Nine of those events already have taken place.
The Maccabi opening ceremonies that August Sunday will also include a special commemoration.
“I cannot imagine why someone wouldn’t support this,” said David Kirschtel, chief executive officer of JCC Rockland, who is the driving force in making the athletes a centerpiece of the JCC’s games. “These men went to the Olympics in a spirit of fair play and competition, and died horribly. After 40 years, it’s about time they were recognized.”
It was not until organizers harnessed the power of the Internet, however, that their efforts caught anything but local attention. They were aided when the JCC Association (JCCA) promoted the effort out to all of its 350 members, including JCCs, YM-YWHAs, and camps, as well as to other Jewish organizations, such as Jewish Federations of North America; the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and the Hillel campus network. In addition, students at the Catholic University of America adopted the cause.
Gary Lipman, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the JCCA, was 12 years old in 1972 and remembers being glued to the television set as the horrific events in Munich unfolded. “That day changed us,” he said.
Sport mingled with such craven politics was really something new, as was the round-the-clock broadcasting of the terrifying drama, he said. Making what happened that day a part of each JCC Maccabi Games gives the sporting event some of its educational power. “These kids have never heard of it, and they go into it, and think, ‘Oh God, I have to see this video,’ and you can hear a pin drop. It’s that impactful.”
JCC Rockland set an initial goal of 10,000 signatures and breezed through that in just over a week. A new goal of 80,011 signatures has since been set, and the number of signatures stood at 22,000 as of midday Wednesday.
Signatures have come from across the United States, from places as close by as Bardonia, N.Y., and as far away as Boise, Iowa. People have signed up from across the globe, from places expected and not, including Israel, England, France, and Holland, Germany, Australia, and even Turkey.
Signers have included E.L. Doctorow, author of the novels “Ragtime” and “The Book of Daniel,” and Mayim Bialik, star of the 1990s television series, “Blossom,” and the current CBS hit, “Big Bang Theory.”
Although the events in Munich played out three years before Bialik was born, she was vaguely aware of the events. When Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich” came out in 2005, however, “it instantly spoke to me of this incredible injustice,” said Bialik. “I think anyone who learns about the story, what happened and how it happened and why it happened – I cannot imagine not being personally compelled [to sign.]”
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon signed it and has posted it on the Ministry’s Facebook page. Just prior, he sent a letter to the IOC’s Rogge, asking again that this year’s opening ceremony in London include a minute of silence.
For Israelis, each subsequent set of Olympics is clouded by those “dark few days when our athletes were kidnapped and then murdered,” Ayalon wrote in an email to The Jewish Standard. Awareness of the petition is building in Israel, where the Munich terrorist attack is considered a critical milestone in Israel’s struggle with terror.
Ayalon was a young man who had recently served in the army at the time and the Munich tragedy made a deep impression. “One thing is for certain, they were targeted for murder because they were Israeli and Jewish,” Ayalon wrote. “No other athletes have been subjected to such tragedy at the Olympic Games. We hope the IOC will not bring politics into this and remember them as athletes, and part of the Olympic family regardless of where they came from.”
There have been unofficial commemorations for the murdered athletes in various Olympic host cities subsequent to the 1972 games, and Olympic officials have attended. However, there has never been an official marking of the event at any of the games during the last 40 years. There will be a commemoration in London at the Guildhall this summer; and the Jewish community will unveil a plaque dedicated to the Munich 11 on the Sunday prior to the July 12 opening of the XXX Olympiad.
For Spitzer, who has made this her business since the Montreal games in 1976, seeing an official commemoration is somewhat of a solitary experience. She has welcomed JCC Rockland’s attention and care, she says.
“We have been doing this by ourselves; this is the story of my life for the last 40 years,” said Spitzer. “To find a community that has put themselves behind our goals is incredible. For me and the other families, they are amazed. They cannot believe that there are other people doing everything in their power to get this done.”
Spitzer hopes that through the power of social media and the internet, the IOC will at least pay some attention this time around. Because the Olympics are held every four years, the 2012 games fall on a significant anniversary, and the media has been paying more attention than usual, Spitzer said. Already she has done interviews with the Times of London, the London Jewish Chronicle, and with the international wire service Reuters that has appeared in many online and printed newspapers. CNN, the BBC, and other television news outlets also have shown interest, she said.
“There is no way they are going to do the Olympics this time without mentioning Munich,” she said. “I think it might make it this time; if there is a petition with a lot of response, maybe it will get through their skulls what we are trying to do.”