Muscular Judaism on the frontier

THERE IS NO doubt that soccer began to be associated with European ethnic groups in Australia after the Chifley government’s intake of ‘New Australians’ from non-Anglo-Irish European countries. This began the erosion of the White Australia Policy after 1947 and, essentially overnight, converted the sport’s base from its traditional British constitution. So much so that the epithet ‘wogball’ was enshrined as a colloquialism in the Macquarie Dictionary. Yet, the inception of Jewish and Yugoslavian teams in Western Australia before 1947 shows that the institutionalisation of ethnic teams in soccer was a process that began between the wars.

A prime example was the Perth-based Jewish club Maccabeans, which still exists today as the Maccabi Soccer Club (WA) and was imbued with the spirit of Zionist mythology. Young Jewish boys started playing soccer in the 1920s as part of their everyday social and physical engagement with the predominately Anglo-Australian community of Perth. But their fast migration to the Zionist Athletic Club and Maccabeans in the 1920s and 1930s had all the hallmarks of the predicted Jewish return from the Galut (diaspora) to the fabled Eretz Yisrael, which would come to pass with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

As was the case with the large Jewish communities of Sydney and Melbourne, the Zionist ideology of Muscular Judaism was central to the inauguration of Jewish sports in the small west-coast community. Looking at the Jewish example from before the war shows how community pride and intellectual concepts of masculinity were as important as ‘cultural baggage’ from the process of migration to the formation of ethnic soccer clubs in Australia.

AUSTRALIAN SOCCER HISTORIANS Roy Hay and Nick Guoth argued in a 2009 essay that each ethnic club in Australia was established on and managed by the conventions, political orientations, community organisations and demographics of its particular ethnic group.
Zionist Athletic and Maccabeans, the first ethnic clubs in Western Australia, were informed by a variety of shifting ideas about Jewish identity. The formation of soccer clubs was one part of a Zionist cultural package, through which stakeholders in Perth’s Jewish community sought to promote the ideals of ‘Muscular Judaism’, while later developments showed that the club became an arena for the negotiation of concepts of community, belonging, masculinity and identity, which played out in Perth’s Jewish paper, the Westralian Judean.

According to Israeli sport historian Haim Kaufman, three ‘meta-goals’ of Zionism were agreed upon by almost all scholars: the rejection of the diaspora, and the promotion of the idea of a Jewish homeland; the necessity to create a nation centred around the Hebrew language; and the transformation of the Jewish image into the ‘new Jew’.

The concept of the ‘new Jew’ derived from the arguments of the Zionist leader Maximilian Nordau, who introduced his concept of Muskeljudentum at the Second Zionist Congress in Prague in 1898. According to cultural historian Todd Presner: ‘Over the formative and tumultuous two decades between 1898 and the end of World War I, Nordau’s reinvented muscle Jew would become arguably the most emblematic figure of Jewish regeneration and Zionism’s “body culture”.’

Nordau’s concept was based on his idea of ‘degeneration’, explicated in his book of the same title – an excoriation of the damaging effects on civil society of art and literature produced by mental and physical ‘degenerates’.

The rise of Muscular Judaism came partly from the conviction that cultural groups, as large organisms, could deteriorate and degenerate, with all of the negative consequences that Nordau attached to these concepts. The ‘Muscle Jew’ was Zionism’s solution for how to ‘regenerate’ and overcome the representation of Jews as passive, bookish and feminine, which proliferated in fin de siecle Europe. An extreme example of this representation of Jews comes from Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger in his 1903 book Sex and Character, in which he wrote that ‘the Jew is more saturated with femininity than the Aryan, to such an extent that the most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan’. Jewish thinkers like Nordau passively endorsed these criticisms while they attempted to counter them with the idea that the entire race could be regenerated by physical activity. Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann wrote in his 2006 essay ‘Muscle Jews versus Nervous Jews’ that its proponents:

…did not ask for regeneration of the individual Jew alone, but for the regeneration of the Jewish people, the nation as an organic unit, using the word ‘sickliness’ to illustrate the state and behaviour of a people.

With Muscular Judaism, men and women previously conceptualised as ‘feminine’, and therefore weak, were encouraged to become physically strong for the good of their ‘race’.

WHILE THE MOST devoted Zionists in the community were Yiddish speakers, the Western Australian Zionist Association that gave birth to the Zionist Athletic Association had a powerful Anglo base, especially through its close involvement with the Jewish Tennis Club, the Perth Hebrew Congregation and the English-speaking Zionist Rabbi David Freedman. Substantially, however, the new sporting teams blurred the Anglo–Yiddish divide and brought Jewish youth into closer contact with the majority Anglo-Australian population. Jewish sporting culture in Western Australia started in earnest with the formation of the Zionist Athletic Association in early 1924, and its organ the Westralian Judean, founded in November that year.

Edited by Sam Masel and funded entirely by the Zionist Athletic Association, the Judean was a hotbed of Muscular Zionist discourse. Seeking to promote this ideal, its pilot edition featured the article ‘An Athletic Revival’, which was draped in the language of regeneration:

Jews have never been famous for their adaptability in outdoor games, and this is probably reflected in the stature of our race, in which giants are scarcer than gold sovereigns… Health-giving sport is an unmixed blessing, and the interest which our young men and girls are showing may be the forerunner for a new type of Jew who combines undoubted brain with brawn.

Interestingly, the author endorses anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as short and unathletic, while nonetheless promoting sports as a way to refute these stereotypes. In a similar vein, the paper’s original inscription of ‘Zion for the Jew’ was a direct reference to the Bulletin’s inscription ‘Australia for the White Man’. This indicated a sympathy for the positive representation of homogenous nationalist racial identities, informed by the logic of ‘white Australia’.

An additional aspect of the Muscular Jewish intellectual platform that the Judean promoted was a retreat from ‘effeminacy’. With the dominant Christian mores of the time dictating that all sport should be played on Saturday, the Zionist Athletic Club conformed to Australian tradition, considering the threat of effeminacy so dangerous that countering it was more important to them than the observance of the Jewish Sabbath:

Even if they are breaking the letter of the law, though we repeat we are convinced they are not, they are upholding its spirit, for Judaism never was a religion for the weak. Zion never will be rebuilt by the effeminate.

The promotion of masculinity as an intra-ethnic ideal was therefore a significant reason for the encouragement of sporting endeavours in the Jewish community. This is similar to the early Greek community in Perth, for whom bodybuilding and professional wrestling were popular pastimes for men as expressions of Hellenistic masculinity. Kerry Evans also noted the promotion of ethnic masculinity as a key factor in the formation of the Grom Polish Soccer Club in Collie in 1950. The Jewish case suggests the large role that the projection of a masculine representation of the ethnic group had in developing ethnic sporting organisations.

WHILE COMMUNITY SENTIMENT and Muscular Judaism were probably the most important motivations, some evidence suggests the formation of Jewish sport clubs was, as in the UK, a response to anti-Semitism. Australian Jewish historian Suzanne Rutland argued in her seminal text The Edge of the Diaspora (Brandl & Schlesinger, 1997) that the indifference of the Australian population ‘engendered the remarkable degree of toleration towards Jews that has always existed in Australia’, yet anti-Semitism still reared its head on many occasions, including within the sporting sphere. For instance, anti-Semitism among elite golf clubs in Sydney led to the formation of the Jewish Monash Golf Club. And there were a few clandestine examples of anti-Semitism in WA’s mainstream press.

For instance, The Sunday Times reported on Tottenham Hotspur FC before their upcoming appearance in the 1921 FA Cup Final:

A singular feature of the crowds at the Tottenham matches is the large proportion of Jews… It is often said by visiting teams that they cannot win because of the very great number of large noses behind the Tottenham goalkeeper.

This comment reflected an English legacy of anti-Semitism that Jewish-Australians interacted with on an intermittent basis.

It was an attitude that came in for criticism by the Westralian Judean when the Zionist soccer team was formed:

A member of the staff of the local evening paper was greatly amused at the fact that members of the Zionist soccer team possess names of undoubted Jewish origin. He could restrain his amusement so little that he was obliged to ask the reading public to join in the joke. Seeing that the team does not own a McPherson, a McSweeney, or even a McKenzie, the cause of his merriment has not yet penetrated through our Scotch sense of humour.

This comment highlights the disjunction of a society that treats some ethnic backgrounds, like Scottish, as invisible and others as marked. It also shows the potential Jewish clubs and press had for protecting community members from anti-Semitism, as well as how the formation of Jewish clubs contested the traditionally British image of soccer in Australia.

The formation of Jewish sports clubs remained a point of controversy from some areas of the community. In Sydney, editors of the Maccabean endorsed the argument that Jews should not form Jewish clubs, arguing that Jews should be inconspicuous. According to these stakeholders, they had to be ‘Jewish in religion, but Australian in sport’. To many Australianised Jews – assimilationist in mindset – public markers of Jewishness such as the public utterance of Yiddish or pledging support for Zionism ran the risk of causing conflict between their Jewish identity and their British or Australian nationality. Many elites, like Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs and Western Australian community leader Harold Boas, favoured a policy of ‘Jewish non-distinctiveness’. On the other hand, the Westralian Judean and Zionist Athletic saw no such conflict, promoting sportspeople who performed admirably for both Jewish and mainstream sporting organisations.

The Zionist Athletic Club’s soccer arm formed, ostensibly, to provide winter competition for Jewish cricketers in the junior section of the Western Australian Soccer Football Association (WASFA). One possible reason that soccer was the sport of choice for male Jewish teenagers in Perth was that most, with the community concentrated around Brisbane Street on the boundary of the central suburbs of Northbridge and Highgate, went to the Perth Boys School, an inner-city school that made space for both soccer and Australian rules football. While not strictly a soccer school, the top players for Zionist’s – Cecil Rosen, Leo Same and Harry Gotlieb – were able to play soccer at the Perth Boys’ School. In 1926, there were three Zionists players in the state schoolboys soccer team, all of them from PBS. Additionally, some players first played junior soccer at inner-city Rangers United, whose long-time President Samuel ‘Pa’ Simon was Jewish.

The original Zionist Athletic team was fast growing but short lived. They had already left the junior association by the end of 1926, playing their last game against Perth City on 11 September. At the end of the 1925 season, ‘Olympian’ – the football writer for the Westralian Judean – had already noted that:

…an unaccountable apathy among the players caused the forfeiture of the last few matches… A suggestion that an Australian code eighteen be formed next year is finding considerable favour.

A Jewish Australian rules team was never formed, even though a number of administrators and players came from the community. The reason is unknown.

ZIONIST ATHLETIC REFORMED in junior soccer in 1929 under the stewardship of Wally Kino, a community member who had been junior secretary of the WASFA in 1928. At the start of 1930, however, controversy was rife over accusations that the Zionist Athletic Association had broken the amateur spirit of the National Maccabi Sports Carnival between WA, NSW and Victoria by paying the subscription fees of talented sportsmen who were not members of the Zionist Athletic Club for the tournament. It is probable that these concerns prompted the formation of Maccabeans as a separate body in 1930 in the junior association. The next year, they re-affiliated with the Zionist Athletic Club but kept their new name.

In a poetic twist, the induction of the Maccabeans into senior football in 1931 drew many Jewish soccer players back to the community; much as in Zionist mythology, the displaced Jews of the Galut would find their way home to Zion. When Zionist Athletic collapsed after the 1926 season Jewish soccerites dispersed. Many of their best players returned to Rangers. Harry Gotlieb, Leo Same and Morris Rebe were all instrumental in Rangers United winning the junior Blackburn Cup final in 1927, 4-2 over Victoria Park.

However, the entrance of the Maccabeans senior team to the WASFA Second League in 1931 brought all of these players back to the community. That they were so intent on playing in a Jewish side provides weight to the argument of sport historians Douglas Booth and Colin Tatz that:

…loyalty, devotion and ‘fanhood’ are based in the first instance on class, caste, religion, race and colour, and then on history and geography.

The Maccabean soccer club was therefore a way to express ethnic and cultural belonging for these young Jews.

Gotlieb was a prime example. His Russian-born father, Hiam, was part of the new breed of Jew to enter Western Australia in the early twentieth century, when a wave of Yiddish-speaking Jews bolstered the tiny Perth community between 1909 and 1914. Hiam Gotlieb had lived in Palestine as a byway between his Russian birthplace and Australia, and it was in Palestine that Harry was born in 1908. Harry was undoubtedly among the best handful of strikers in Perth in the late 1920s. He stepped up to senior football by joining the long-running Scottish-backed club Thistle as a twenty-year-old in 1928. In his debut campaign, Gotlieb became Thistle’s leading goal scorer. But after three seasons he took a drop in class to join Maccabeans in the second division.

Unfortunately, the 1931 season would be his last, as a serious leg injury ended his career at twenty-three. Yet Gotlieb remained involved in football, later chairing the WA Soccer Football Association’s board of control in 1936, breaking ground as the first non-Anglo-Celtic leader of the organisation – and indeed of any major sporting body in the state.

BY 1933, THE Jewish club was so institutionalised in local football that when a Zionist Athletic delegation lobbied for a Jewish team’s inclusion in the Boan Cup international series (traditionally played between sides representing England and Scotland) the association agreed to schedule a four-team international series that year, between England, Scotland, Australia and ‘Jews’. However, this was later changed to a two-match England–Scotland series without explanation.

In 1937, the club won the second league and were promoted to the first division for the first time in their history. In 1939, a Palestinian side primarily composed of Maccabi Tel Aviv players toured Australia, playing twice against the WA state team. Maccabeans delighted in providing hospitality to these players, and some of them stayed behind to live in Australia after the tour. One of them, Minachum Mirmovitch, later enlisted in the Australian army during World War II as a registered alien but died in combat in New Guinea. Maccabeans’ most successful season was 1946, when a tie with Caledonians for top spot occasioned a play-off for the first division championship. After a 0-0 draw at the first attempt, Maccabeans lost a second play-off on the Esplanade, 4-2, in front of an estimated three thousand spectators. To this day, it is their best ever season performance, and had the league been conducted under current rules, Maccabeans would have won on goal difference.

ACCORDING TO HISTORIAN Steve Georgakis, Savoia (Italian) versus Appolon (Greek) at Middle Park, Melbourne in July 1934 was probably the first inter-ethnic match in Australia. In fact, in 1931 Maccabeans played two games, one in the Charity Cup and one in the WASFA Senior Second League against the Yugoslavian Zora, with the Jewish side winning 9-1 on 23 May and 7-0 on 20 June, respectively.

The press reporting on the first of these games relied heavily on the idea that it was a contest between two ethnic national groups. The West Australian publicised its coverage of the game with a picture of Gotlieb and Kovacevich challenging for the ball, listing their nationalities as ‘Jewish’ and ‘Czechoslovakian’, respectively. Similarly, on the Tuesday following Maccabeans’ cup win the Western Mail placed pictures of both teams in the paper with the caption ‘Jews v Czechoslovakians’. This process of ethnic ascription was taken to its logical conclusion by Sydney’s the Bulletin, commenting on the second game:

In Perth soccer circles this season there is a team of youthful Czecho-Slovakians known as Zoras. They clashed on a recent Saturday with a team of Jews known as the Maccabeans. The spectators were undecided at times as to whether they were watching a match on an Australian field or in Montenegro. The referee’s lot in settling questions of bad language became a serious problem. He couldn’t tell whether a Czech was merely complimenting an opponent for hacking or telling him to go blanky Tophetski.

That a second division match in a minor football code would arouse such interest on the other side of the country spoke to the rarity, novelty and exoticism with which Anglo-Australians viewed the occasion.

Over all this time, one critical question for members of the Jewish community was whether gentiles could join their team. The first non-Jewish Maccabean was Ralph Barons, a South Australian goalkeeper who had appeared for the representative Australian XI in two matches against a Czechoslovakian touring side in 1927. In 1931, he played three games for Maccabeans while on a business secondment with the General Motors Acceptance Corporation, and was promoted in the Jewish and mainstream press as a temporary attraction. Both lauded the prodigiously talented South Australian, and he returned home with much praise.

A very different reaction occurred in 1933 when two brothers, J and C Stevenson, played for the side, appearing at short notice in a famous win over Fremantle Rangers, a team who were previously undefeated in the WASFA Senior Western League. The brothers were responsible for two of the three goals Maccabeans scored in their 3-2 victory. They had both come from the reserves side of Northern Casuals when, starved of first-team opportunities, they made the move to Maccabeans so suddenly before their debuts that their names were not in the sides published beforehand. The Jewish press was initially oblivious, with the Westralian Judean reporting that ‘it was indeed a great match, the Jewish boys co-operating splendidly. But they received blunt criticism in the next month’s paper when a community member complained:

Now, sir. I think it only right to give credit where credit is due, and to point out that most credit for the victory should go to the efforts of two non-Jewish players who scored the winning goals for the Maccabeans… It is to be hoped now that more non-Jewish players will be included in future matches, as by their aid we will certainly win the premiership, which is the Maccabeans’ sole aim, excepting of course that of turning our Jewish footballers into barrackers.

The editor of the Judean concurred, arguing that:

If the community as a whole is to derive any satisfaction, which it certainly does, from the fact that some of our football enthusiasts are anxious to place a Jewish team in the field, that pleasure is certainly destroyed by the realisation that the successes gained are not entirely due to our Jewish boys.

Many stakeholders felt the club should be closed to outsiders and constrained to ‘the in-group’, a sign that for many the club should project a strictly Jewish identity. There are continuities between Maccabeans and later teams – Roy Jones and Phillip Moore argued that in the 1990s, while the presence of ‘Poms’ in ethnic teams was tolerated, it was often decried by their fans as a departure from the group ethos. The Stevenson brothers departed at the start of the next season. It was not until 1954 that a non-Jewish player, Australian international Ron Adair, again shirted up for the Macs.

While the early Muscular Zionist stance of the Zionist Athletic Association was rigid and nationalistic, the later intellectual platform was to view sport as part of the experience of assimilation. In 1933, a writer for the Judean noted:

…it is certain, and it is proof of the extent to which Jewry has become assimilated into Australian life, that the growth of our Jewish communities in this country has seen a corresponding increase in the activities of Jewish sport and Jewish sportsmen… Keen contests have been staged, and clean sportsmanship, in keeping with the finest British traditions, has always been conspicuously present, both on and off the field.

Originally started within a Muscular Zionist ideal derived from European intellectual traditions, and intended for the purpose of developing the corporeal Jewish body in preparation for the metaphorical and literal return to Zion, Jewish soccer in Perth developed into a core element of the community’s integration into mainstream Australian society. It became a secular institution that promoted a Jewish identity in an Australian society, in which public displays of Jewishness were discouraged, even by Jewish elites.

THERE ARE AT least three reasons why Maccabeans has never truly received acknowledgement for the trail it blazed in WA for more storied ethnic clubs like Perth SC, Floreat Athena, Bayswater City and Stirling Lions. First, it held out too long on joining the other ethnic clubs in the breakaway semi-professional West Australian Soccer Federation that broke the amateur WASFA between 1960 and 1963. Second, community attitudes to playing sport on the Sabbath hardened as the Muscle Jew ideal became less prominent, while Christian attitudes to playing sport on their Sabbath relaxed. Thus, when Sunday football became an option in WA with the formation of an amateur league in 1968, Maccabeans were quick to change over, surrendering their place in the upper echelons of WA soccer. Finally, the present-day Maccabi only has the faintest acknowledgement of its roots in the inter-war period. It lists its foundation as its date of incorporation in 1953, when the club moved to its still present-day home on Woodrow Avenue, the Maccabean Memorial Ground. In doing so, it unwittingly endorses the old paradigm that soccer was delivered to Australia and cultured solely by the European refugees of the postwar period. It whitewashes the significant role the club played as a socio-political body, both emblematic of and assisting the difficult passage Australian Jews navigated as they engaged with mainstream Australia before the end of World War II.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review