Israeli Judoka Wins World Championship

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I received emails from several people requesting we write about “Our Boys.” Others are anxious to prep for the Israeli elections; and, of course, the borders of Israel and Lebanon are getting significant attention. My colleague Elana Raskas and I decided we want to share with you some news that naturally gets less attention, but its significance for the Zionist project and Israel’s reason for being is no less.

What am I talking about? Sagi Muki and his gold medal at the World Judo Championship.

Why is this so important? What should you unpack with your students and colleagues? Quite a lot, as it turns out. 

When I was on my Beth Tfiloh senior high school trip to Israel, I distinctly remember pausing to look at the serene and ancient hills of Jerusalem when a friend of mine, also caught up in the moment, said to me: “It’s magical, isn’t it. Europe is just so gorgeous.” Errr, stop the music. Confused, I looked back at her and responded, “I agree this place feels magical, but you know, Israel is not in Europe…”

Isn’t that geography 101? Well, my self-assured 17-year-old self should take it down a notch. While Israel is geographically not in Europe, where does Israel belong socially and culturally? It competes in the Eurovision. And, to reach the World Cup in soccer (futbol), Israel needs to somehow defeat the powerhouse European countries. So, while Israel may be in Asia, and border Africa, her neighbors sometimes certainly treat her like she does not belong in the region. 

Read on to understand why Sagi Muki’s achievement should be understood within the context of the history of Israel and Zionism.

What Happened?

Israeli judo competitor, or “judoka,” Sagi Muki took home the gold at the World Judo Championship in Tokyo on Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli man to do so. He has recovered from an injury that set him back at the 2016 Rio Olympics, in which he finished fifth place. (Israelis Yarden Gerbi and Ori Sasson won bronze medals at the Rio Games.) Muki competed in the middleweight category (73-81 kg); in the semi-finals, he defeated Egyptian judoka Mohamed Abdelaal, who refused to shake Muki’s hand afterward. At the medal ceremony, Muki sang along as “Hatikvah” was played in the arena.


The athletic seeds are planted – Early Zionist thinker Max Nordau first proposed the idea of “muscle Judaism.” He saw the need to cultivate a “new Jew” who was physically capable. He stated, “Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men… Our new muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas…” Since Nordau’s day, the Jewish people has certainly regained that physical “heroism” that was lacking in the persecuted Jew throughout centuries. Israeli pioneers worked the land and built up a country. Since 1948, Israel has cultivated sports teams and athletes that compete nationally and internationally. And, of course, there is the IDF, a top-notch army with outstanding capabilities. Israel does face challenges on the court, though; it has political rivals that do not display good sportsmanship when Israel is involved. This week, we take a deeper look at Israeli sports by diving into Israel’s most successful sport to date: judo.

Why judo? Five out of Israel’s nine total Olympic medals are in judo. Why is Israel succeeding in this sport, of all things? Israel’s success in judo began with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in which judokas Yael Arad and Oren Smadja won Israel’s first-ever Olympic medals. Israel Judo Association President Moshe Ponte estimates that as many as 70,000 Israelis are active in judo today. He describes judo as a “sport with values. Respect for your rival, respect for the organization and discipline, discipline, discipline.” Sports psychologist Dr. Iris Orbach adds: “Mental training is an integral part of preparation. Israelis are used to struggles…” Jerusalem Post sports reporter Allon Sinai points to more pragmatic considerations: “There are three main components required to succeed in any sport, Olympic sports in particular: Physical compatibility, financial investment and experience… Israeli judo is at a point where it has achieved all three.” He adds that there is a low barrier to entry, and that judo remains an obscure sport in many countries, which gives Israel an edge when competing in international competitions.

Why Zionism —  and what does the story of Sagi Muki have to do with Zionism?

As we’ve written about in the past, there are three main frameworks for how to think about the purpose of Zionism and Israel. 

  1. The Jewish state should exist in order to serve as a safe haven from all the anti-semitism in the world.
  2. The Jewish state should exist in order for the Jewish people to be like everyone else, to be a nation like the rest of the nations of the world.
  3. The Jewish state should exist in order to be exceptional and serve as a “light unto the nations.”

Those who associate their Zionism with the second reason want Israel to be normal and accepted like everyone else. At the United Nations, there is a desire to belong. When Israel wins Eurovision, there is tremendous pride. When Israel wins medals at the Olympics, it feels good. (As an aside, check out our Munich Olympics video with the accompanying lesson plan.) When an Israeli wins a medal on the world stage, it is a sort of vindication for many Jews around the world. “We have a seat at the table. We have a voice. We have self-determination like all of you.” Famous early Zionists debated the very point of Zionism. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wanted to create what he called a “geza psychologi chadash shel Yehudi” a “new psychological breed of Jews.” Like Nordau’s vision, this Jew would be strong and self-reliant. Another, less well-known early Zionist, Micha Yosef Birditchevsky declared, “Anachnu hador haacharon shel hayehudim vehador harishon shel ha’ivrim.” “We are the last generation of Jews and the first generation of Hebrews.” Quite the extreme statement, but let’s understand what he was advocating for – what he perceived as a healthy Jew, someone with self-esteem and grit. Whether we agree with these early Zionists or not, the pride many Jews across the globe feel can be attributed to this acknowledgment that we are our own people, which is something that was denied to us for centuries. 

In many ways, Israel’s success on the world stage fulfills one of the missions of Zionism.

Why Does This Matter?

Israel on the world stage – As mentioned above, Muki’s Egyptian opponent refused to shake his hand, as is the custom, at the end of their match. Sadly, this is not unusual. In 2017, a UAE judoka refused to shake hands with Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul; in 2016, an Egyptian judoka refused to shake hands with Ori Sasson. Often, competitors from Arab countries will forfeit matches against Israelis altogether. In 2017, Israeli competed in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament. There, Israeli competitors were barred from wearing Israeli uniforms, and, when they won, the Israeli flag was not flown nor was “Hatikvah” played. Israel was the only country singled out in such a way. After last week’s competition, President Donald Trump’s Israel advisor Jason Greenblatt tweeted: “Condolences to Mohamed Abdelaal who lost 2x today- once as an athlete and once as a decent person.” (See discussion questions for more on this.)

Israel’s place – Ever wonder why Israel competes in European competitions, when Israel is not in Europe? Mishy Harman, in his Israel Story podcast, reminds us that ever since 1948, international sports associations did not know what to do with Israel. To which continent did Israel belong? Europe, Africa, Asia? Asia makes the most sense geographically. From 1954-1974 Israel competed in the Asian Games, but at some point Turkey and Indonesia refused to play against Israel, and games in Iran got out of hand. In 1982, Israel was excluded from the Asian Games for “political reasons” and was cited as a “security risk due to conflict with other Arab nations.” In 1986, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, came up with a somewhat strange solution: Israel competed with Oceania. In 1990-1, Israel joined European associations, which enables them to play in the European Championships and other European competitions. Today, many Asian and African countries do not allow their athletes to compete against Israel. Even in Europe, Israeli athletes often meet with hostility, such as in 2013 when Hungarian fans chanted “stinking Jews” and “Heil Benito Mussolini.” Also, competing in the European division for the World Cup hurts Israel’s chance of making it to the top, as they play against the world’s top teams to qualify. 

Jewish and Israeli pride – It’s not every day that Israel, a tiny country, wins an international sporting competition. When Israeli athletes bring home big titles, it’s a source of great pride for most Israelis and Jewish people around the world. Muki’s mother described her pride and excitement over her son’s win; she watched every moment of the match, while Muki’s father preferred to read Tehillim, Psalms. PM Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: “World champion! Awesome Sagi Muki – you brought tremendous respect and pride to all of us.” President Reuven Rivlin also took to Twitter: “Sagi Muki is @Judo world champion! Your achievement makes us so proud and teaches us that hard work, humanity and a hand always extended in peace can conquer the greatest heights. Congratulations on your gold medal and thank you for the pride you bring us all as #Israelis.” Clearly, pride is a major factor here.

Discussion Questions

  1. As mentioned above,  the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament in 2017 did not recognize Israeli athletes as such; they were barred from wearing Israeli uniforms, the Israeli flag was not flown, and “Hatikvah” was not played. Should Israelis compete in competitions that treat them this way? Why do you think Israel chooses to participate in them despite this degradation?
  2. The following year, the Abu Dhabi tournament did recognize Israel and allowed “Hatikvah” to be played when Muki won. Does this fact shed light on question #1? Israeli culture minister at the time, Miri Regev, was in attendance and placed the medal on Muki herself. She stated, “It is a moving moment in my career. It is a dream come true. For two years we had talks in order to reach this moment and it was hard to stop the tears.” Why do you think this moment meant so much to Regev?
  3. Should the sports arena remain politics-free? Do you see it as ideal for there to be a healthy, competitive zone devoid of politics? Do some rifts run too deep to even aspire to this?
  4. When American-Israeli basketball player Tal Brody helped Israel defeat the USSR in 1977, he proudly announced on live TV: “Israel is on the map and staying on the map, not just in sports but in everything.” (With his imperfect Hebrew, he actually said “in the map,” but people let it slide.) What do you think Brody meant by this statement?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. In addition to participating in international and European sporting events, Israel competes in the popular Eurovision song contest every year. The Israeli competitor won the 2018 contest, and therefore Israel hosted the 2019 contest. Did you follow the story back in May? It’s not too late to get your students caught up using this article and this one!
  2. It is a great honor when one’s country’s national anthem is played upon winning a medal at a sporting event. Your students may know the words to “Hatikvah,” but do they know the meaning behind them? Check out our fascinating video on the topic to share with your students.
  3. Sadly, there is one sporting event that stands out as a great tragedy in Israel’s history: the 1972 Munich Olympics. Play this video and use the accompanying resources to learn about this incident with your students.

In Other News…

  1. Israeli elections are heating up – stay tuned for our upcoming coverage! Elections are scheduled for Tuesday, September 17.
  2. Israeli students went back to school yesterday, September 1. That includes 2.3 million school-aged children and teens! Education Minister Rafi Peretz announced that the theme of this school year will be “mutual responsibility and strengthening of values.”
  3. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez arrived in Israel this week on a diplomatic visit that will include the opening of a “diplomatic office” in Jerusalem. He stated, “For me it’s the recognition that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” 

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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