An interesting piece in the latest Columbia College Today magazine: “Soccer and the Jewish Question,” by Franklin Foer (one of the Fab Foers).

Editor-at-large of The New Republic, he’s the author of a recently reissued 2004 book called “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.”

In the magazine, Foer relates how he came to be interested in the story of Hakoah (which means “strength”), the Jewish soccer club of Vienna in the 1920s and winner of the 1925 Austrian championship. “Based on all the evidence we have,” he writes, “the Jewish all-stars were, for a short spell, one of the best teams on the planet.”

He first read about the club in a book that everyone jokes about as being imaginary: “Great Jewish Sports Legends.”

In a reprinted excerpt from his own book, he tells of his quest to learn more about the club, and what he discovered.

He notes that, in the 1920s, “Jewish teams cloaked themselves in Jewish, not Hungarian or Austrian or German, nationalism, literally wearing their Zionism on their sleeves and shirts. Decades before Adolf Eichmann forced them to don the yellow star, some of these clubs played with King David’s logo stitched onto the breasts of their jerseys. They swathed themselves in blue-and-white uniforms, the colors of Israel. Their unabashedly Hebrew names, Hagibor (‘The Hero’), Bar Kochba (after the leader of a second-century revolt against the Romans), and Hakoah (‘The Strength’), had unmistakably nationalist overtones.”

Foer sees this as an expression of the political doctrine of “Max Nordau, one of the founding fathers of turn-of-the-century Zionism …, called Muskeljudentum, or muscular Judaism. Nordau argued that the victims of anti-Semitism suffered from their own disease, a condition he called Judendot, or Jewish distress…. To beat back anti-Semitism and eradicate Judendot, Jews didn’t merely need to reinvent their body politic. They needed to reinvent their bodies. He prescribed Muskeljudentum as a cure for this malady. He wrote, ‘We want to restore to the flabby Jewish body its lost tone, to make it vigorous and strong, nimble and powerful.’ Jews, he urged in articles and lectures, should invest in creating gymnasia and athletic fields, because sport ‘will straighten us in body and character.'”

And what became of the Hakoah all-stars?

“On the team’s 1925 trip, Hakoah players caught a glimpse of New York City, a metropolis seemingly uninfected by European anti-Semitism. It replaced Jerusalem as their Zion, and, over the next year, they immigrated there en masse. Deprived of nine of its best players, Hakoah attempted resurrection but only achieved mediocrity. For the rest of its brief life, it struggled to hold down a place in the top division of Austrian football, occasionally plummeting out of it. And then, its players struggled against death. With the 1938 Anschluss and German rule of the nation, the Austrian league shut down Hakoah, nullified the results of any games played against Hakoah, and it handed over the club’s stadium to the Nazis.”

For the whole article, go to http://www.college.columbia.edu/cct/mar_apr11/columbia_forum1

RKB