The bookends to my bar mitzvah were the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in the 1972 summer games in Munich, and the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.
Born in New York, raised in South Florida, neither of these events involved me directly. And yet both represented an ominous rite of passage. I am not sure I would be writing these bi-monthly essays had the world not initiated me early on to the dangers of being a Jew.
With the Tokyo Olympics in Japan set to commence this week, it’s worth remembering all that has happened, and not happened, in the intervening 49 years since the Munich Olympic games. At the time, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was itself only eight years old—three years before the Six-Day War in which Israel recaptured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That means “Israeli settlements” could not have given birth to Palestinian terrorism. Not a single Jew lived in the West Bank and Gaza in 1964. The chant, “From the river to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” means just what it says: rid all of Israel of its Jews.
With the Tokyo Olympics in Japan set to commence this week, it’s worth remembering all that has happened, and not happened, in the intervening 49 years since the Munich Olympic games.
The PLO back then specialized in airplane hijacks (and a lone Palestinian assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who might have otherwise been elected president in 1968). The Munich Massacre, as it later was to be called, took place a mere 24 years into Israel’s nationhood. In 1972, Israel had no chance of medaling in any event. So soon after Auschwitz, Jewish athletes marching behind the Israeli flag was itself an extraordinary achievement.
Black September, the name the Munich terrorists gave themselves, entered the Olympic Village compound. Security was porous, but then again, the entire mission must have seemed so improbable with the whole world watching.
Nine Israeli Olympians were kidnapped; two had already been killed at the dormitory. The German military was prevented from assisting local police; so, too, were Israeli commandos. Eventually, all nine hostages were killed in a botched rescue attempt.
Shocking, or perhaps not so, the games went on—without a memorial service. Why dampen the global mood? An official ceremony would not take place until 2016.
The Palestinian terrorists captured on the tarmac were eventually set free in exchange for German hostages taken during yet another Palestinian airplane hijacking. Over several years, Israel would assassinate those responsible for the crime.
Ironically, it was at the Munich Olympics that Jewish-American swimmer, Mark Spitz, from Los Angeles, won seven Olympic Gold Medals, a record at the time. The world’s fastest human in water was sprinted away to America in case he, too, became a target.
Germany was jinxed for Jewish athletes even before 1972. Berlin was the site of the Olympic games shortly before the Holocaust. In 1936, Adolf Hitler hosted the games as a showcase of Aryan superiority. Someone forgot to tell American track and field superstar, Jesse Owens. He went on to win four Olympic Gold Medals. The Fuhrer was furious. But it could have been worse: Owens could have been a Jew.
Well, Owens sort of stepped into the running shoes of Jews destined for their own Olympic glory. A sidenote to his achievement was that two Jewish-American sprinters were tapped to run the 4×100-meter relay. At the last moment, both were replaced by Owens and another Black sprinter, sparing Hitler the nightmare scenario of seeing genetically inferior Jews on the victory podium.
Hitler had already ensured that no German Jew would medal at Berlin. Two Jewish women, a high-jumper and a fencer, were unceremoniously removed from the German team before the games began. Yet, making the Olympics judenrein was nevertheless thwarted. World class Jewish athleticism was not unknown in Europe. Despite all that antisemitic benching, 13 Jews from around the world (six from Hungary) medaled during the Nazi Olympics.
The pageantry of the German Olympics was majestic, but the Master Race lost a lot of races in Munich.
As for the Yom Kippur War, well, that says it all: Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, while the nation was fasting. Israel’s preparedness was abysmal. After heavy early losses, Israel battled back. The Sinai Peninsula looked like a mortuary of tank carcasses as Israel’s army moved closer to Cairo. If not for a jointly-called American-Soviet ceasefire, Israel might have captured the pyramids built by its enslaved ancestors before the Exodus.
It was all yet another reminder that even on Yom Kippur, with the Book of Life still in draft form, God was not in the business of smiting the enemies of his Chosen People.
In the intervening decades, Israel signed an enduring peace treaty with Egypt, its once implacable foe. Both countries now work together to quell Palestinian terrorism. Germany and Israel are staunch allies. At the time of both the Munich Olympics and the Yom Kippur War, Israel maintained friendly relations with the Shah of Iran. Today, Iran’s Islamic theocracy, its nuclear ambitions, and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza are cause for Israel’s concern.
Middle East conflict remains, albeit with different players and a remade regional map.
Some things may never change. At the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, judoka Or Sasson (also competing in Tokyo), won the bronze medal. Along the way he defeated an Egyptian judoka who refused to shake his hand. A female Saudi judoka forfeited a match to avoid having to compete against an Israeli woman.
The 2021 Olympics in Tokyo (yes, a year late due to the pandemic) will hold its opening ceremonies this week. Israel will march in the parade of nations. But this year it has seven athletes, and a baseball team, with a very good chance of winning medals, even the gold (especially in men’s judoka, women’s rhythmic gymnastics, women’s surfing, and an Ethiopian Jew in the marathon). Israel’s baseball team qualified as one of the six to compete for gold.
Still a speck of a country. All that European chutzpah and Sephardic resourcefulness. Israel moves fast, where and when it counts. Stay tuned: You might hear “Hatikvah” played in Tokyo.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. For his writings in the Jewish Journal, he won the American Jewish Press Association’s Louis Rapaport Award for Excellence in Commentary.