The Zionist movement and sports in Palestine

A Palestinian boys’ sports team in northern Palestine in the 1930s. (Matson Collection)

Reading the Zionist literature on the history of Palestine as well as the history of sports in Palestine, one might get the impression that Palestine was void of Palestinians. If such histories do mention the Palestinians, they invariably try to depict these Palestinians as lacking any cultural, social, or athletic aspect. They appear to assert that the Zionists populated the region, and graced it with civilization and modernization — that they brought sports and culture to the primitive people who had hitherto known nothing of either of these refinements. Efforts such as these to distort reality and rewrite history are not new. Indeed, the Zionist athletic leadership worked to marginalize the Palestinians in the sports sector.

The fact is, however, that prior to 1948 there were some 65 social athletic clubs in Palestine. Approximately 55 of them were members of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation, which was established in 1931 and re-established in 1944, and included athletic clubs from all over Palestine.

Efforts to dominate athletics, marginalize the Arabs, and cultivate cooperation with the British at any price were the main traits that characterized Zionist involvement in sports. A simple Internet query on the history of sports in Israel and a reading of the historical essays is enough to make plain that distortion and concealment of the historical facts have gone side by side.

The Zionist leadership viewed establishing athletic federations and committees as a means of achieving overall Zionist goals of establishing and legitimating Zionist claims to Palestine. These official organizations helped represent Palestine as “Jewish,” both regionally and internationally, and were seen as instrumental in achieving the leadership’s national and political goals.

For example, in 1924, the leadership of the Jewish Maccabi athletic organization attempted to gain membership in the International Amateur Athletic Federation. This initiative ended in failure as it was determined that Maccabi did not represent Arab, British and Jewish sportsmen in Palestine equally.

However, this unsuccessful attempt did not discourage Maccabi leader Josef Yekutieli, who in the beginning of 1925 attempted to gain Maccabi membership in the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Yekutieli decided to employ a different tactic this time: he first established the Palestine Football Federation. The federation’s inaugural meeting was convened in the summer of 1928. Immediately, after being accepted in FIFA, the Jewish leadership started to dominate the Palestine Football Association by ensuring that Jews were the majority in it. This was accomplished by such strategies as imposing the Hebrew language and incorporating the Jewish flag in the federation’s logo.

Today, Israeli websites state that this federation (also referred to as the “Israel Sports Federation”) was founded as the Football Association of Eretz Israel/Palestine under the British Mandate in 1928. The writings of journalist Shimon Samet are revealing of the disingenuous motivations of this initiative: “Perhaps at first, a small group of Arab sportsmen could be found — a group that would listen to our voice and claims that sport and politics should not be mixed and that the good and mutual relationships between sportsmen of both nations could bring about the improvement of the friendly relations in general. Nothing, however, came of this proposal.” [1]

In 1930, a team of Palestine football players comprised of six Jewish and nine British players toured Egypt. The team, which was named the “Land of Israel Select Team,” had the letter “P” (short for “Palestine”) on its uniform, while “LD” (indicating “Land of Israel”) was written in small letters. Due to this fact, as well as to the failure of the team in its games against the Cairo team (5-0), the Alexandria team (2-0), and a military team from Cairo (5-2), the trip was sharply criticized in the Hebrew press. [2]

The Hebrew-language newspaper Davar, quoted here from Haggai Harif and Yair Galily’s Sports and Politics in Palestine, 1918-48, stated that “ ‘We highly regard the friendly relations between our country and the neighboring countries; indeed, sport can produce such relations. Again, a team from the Land of Israel went to compete in Egypt. Their uniform is not blue and white but black and white, and their symbol is not a Hebrew one but a big P and only small LD on its side … the team had to reflect the composition of the country — only the inhabitants of the country and not military people who travel here and there, and due to their temporary status in the land cannot be representatives of the country.’” [3]

Even today, there remains a great deal of misinformation on Palestinian websites regarding the participation of Palestine in the 1934 and 1938 World Cup tournaments. Such misinformation generally comes from individuals who are not familiar with the historical facts and must be corrected.

Arab Palestine did not compete against Egypt in 1934. Rather, it was Jewish athletes backed by the Zionist movement who wanted to show the world that Palestine was “Jewish.” Entering the World Cup as “Palestine,” they were defeated twice by Egypt in 1934 and by Greece in 1938. Today, FIFA repeats that “Palestine” played against Egypt in 1934, without citing the nature of the conflict in Palestine at that time. Meanwhile, Israel boasts that it participated in the World Cup tournaments of 1934 and 1938, and that “Israel” had played five international matches prior to 1948. Egypt’s participation in this charade was due largely to the fact that it was then under British control, and was subject to colonial attempts to normalize the relationship between it and the Zionist movement.

While the Palestinians attempted to challenge Zionist attempts to dominate sports in Palestine, their efforts were late and generally unsuccessful. In addition, the Palestinian sports leadership bears responsibility for not raising awareness throughout the Arab world of the nature of the conflict with the Zionists in the sports arena. Although they were focused on the internal political and national struggle against Zionism and the British Mandate, they failed to develop the necessary international alliances in support of their cause. Nor can one ignore the fact that Arab sports did not reach a high level of qualification for competing on the international level.

Moreover, Egyptian support for Palestinian sports did not emerge until the 1940s. This was most overtly seen in the support of the Egyptian Sports Federation to the Palestinian Sports Federation after its re-establishment in September 1944 or the backing given by Egyptian sports federations and other Arab sports federations to the Palestinian Federation in its appeal to become a member of FIFA in 1946. There were also dozens of scrimmages and competitions between Arab Palestine and Egypt.

At the same time, the Zionist sports movement was strengthened by the financial support of the Jewish Agency, included funding for players, coaches and other resources. It was also strengthened by the dozens of soccer matches between the Jewish clubs and British teams — especially after the 1936-1939 Arab revolt, when the Zionist movement took the opportunity to improve its contacts with the British, including military athletes.

The attempts by the Zionist movement to marginalize and erase Palestinian Arabs from the sports life of British mandate Palestine was a reflection of its larger political strategy and goals. Although the Zionist movement attempted to claim that sports were separate from politics, it proved to be yet another arena for Zionist colonization. Then and now, sports in Palestine cannot be isolated from politics.

Issam Khalidi, an independent scholar, is author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948 in Arabic, as well as various articles on the subject, including “Body and Ideology: Early Athletics in Palestine (1900-1948),” Jerusalem Quarterly, Summer 2006.

[1] Shimon Samet, “To Fulfill an Important Role”, Haaretz, 17 April 1936. On sporting relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, see also “A Ridiculous Boycott on the Hebrew Sport,” Doar Hayom, 16 November 1932.
[2] Ibid.
[3] D. Tidhar, “Football from the land of Israel in Egypt,” Davar, 10 April 1930, quoted in Haggai Harif and Yair Galily, Sport and Politics in Palestine, 1918-48: Football as a Mirror Reflecting the Relations between Jews and Britons, Soccer and Society, vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 41-56.