Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ay Oh Ay Oh Ay Oh AY OH!

In How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer uses world cup soccer to show how globalization has influenced local cultures differently in different regions of the world. Rejecting the theories of both the left and the right, his soccer example shows that globalization enhances local culture and corruption at the same time.

One fascinating and unexpected chapter of the book called “How Soccer Explains the Jewish Question,” tells the history of Jewish soccer clubs in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

“Although it seems strange now, the idea of a professional Jewish soccer club it is only strange because so few of the Jewish soccer clubs survived Hitler. But, in the 1920s, Jewish soccer clubs had sprouted throughout metropolitan Europe in Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Innsbruck, and Linz.

Jewish teams cloaked themselves in Jewish, not Hungarian or Austrian, or German, nationalism literally wearing their Zionism on their shirts…their unabashedly Hebrew names, Hagibor (the hero), Bar Kochba (after the leader of the second century revolt against the Romans), and HaKoah (the strength), had mistakenly nationalist overtones.

If all of this seemed explicitly political, it was because these clubs were the product of a political doctrine. An entire movement of Jews believed that soccer and sport more generally, would liberate them from the violence and tyranny of anti-Semitism. The polemicist, Max Nordau, one of the founding fathers of turn of the century Zionism, created a doctrine called muskeljudentum or muscular Judaism…To beat back anti-Semitism…Jews didn’t merely need to reinvent their body politic; they needed to reinvent their bodies. ” (Foer 69)

Interesting right? That’s only the beginning. Foer goes on to tell the story of Hakoah, the most successful of the Jewish soccer teams. Recognizing that soccer carried political mileage, a number of wealthy well-connected Jews created the team with the hope that it could be used to disprove stereotypes about Jews, and fight anti-Semitism. However, because it was run like a capitalist machine, Hakoah initially confirmed stereotypes that were already held by German and Austrian soccer fans, and gave them a not-needed opportunity to pick fights. In the end, the team did achieve many of its goals. It became internationally successful and renown, like Manchester United today, and won the 1925 championship. Additionally, the team inspired a community of loyal followers, which included highly assimilated Jews who previously hid their identity, and each victory was seen as a sign that the period of Jewish discrimination was coming to an end.

Just as it began, the story of Jewish soccer in Europe ends unexpectedly. Hakoah’s 1925 success led the team to take a trip to New York. When the players saw that New York was uninfected with European anti-Semitism, it became their Zion, and the players immigrated en masse there (Foer 75).

A final fascinating element of the chapter is Foer’s explanation of how Jewish identity is used in today’s soccer competitions. Whether or not you believe that anti-Semitism is growing in Europe, it is unquestionable that it does still exist today. Tottenham, a soccer club in North London, refers to its players as Yiddoes. Some of the greatest teams in European soccer refer to themselves as Jewish, because Jews founded them in the 1880s. Ajax of Amsterdam even use Israeli flags to decorate their stadiums.

What is the significance of this Jewish identification mean? While the teams take on Jewish identity as a way to compliment the Jews, it still treats them like others. Similar to how Americans use Indians as sporting mascots, in the European context the Jews are treated as a cartoon images who cannot escape their otherness.

What can we take from this text, and the chapter about Jewish soccer? A few simple truths:

1) Processes of globalization can be best explained when studied locally (duh!)
2) Maybe instead of spending millions of dollars creating Jewish babies and “fighting” anti-Semitism in Europe with policy analyses, the Jewish government should be buying us all umbros and cleats…

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