Constructions of Jews in twentieth-century Europe have been riddled throughout with inconsistencies and contradictions. However, some themes have been surprisingly persistent, none more so than constructions of Jews as weak, effeminate and cowardly. Schaffer looks at one significant set of responses to such characterizations, specifically at the rise of the ‘muscle Jew’ in Jewish and non-Jewish thinking. After the term was coined by Max Nordau at the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of the ‘muscle Jew’ came to represent a dominant current of Jewish identity reformulation. More recently, a series of scholars have come to understand the idea as a manifestation of Zionist ideology, a statement of a nationalist desire for Jewish reinvention in the face of endemic European antisemitism. By using the example of British Jewish service in the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War, Schaffer argues rather that the idea of the ‘muscle Jew’ can be better understood as a reflection of Jewish desire for European integration, an attempt to present Jewish soldiers as equal to their non-Jewish equivalents. Moreover, he contends that the ‘muscle Jew’ needs to be understood as an idea rooted in the longue durée of Jewish history, one that represents only one strand of Jewish self-imagining.
Despite the popularity of Zionist sports clubs and the incorporation of athletic activity as an essential component within the Zionist ethos, Jewish sports in pre-1948 Palestine have been allotted a relatively minor place in Zionist historiography. One reason for this marginalization is the convoluted institutionalization of Zionist sports and the tensions it embedded between various perceptions of identity (national, transnational, regional, and political). Such tensions exerted a crucial influence on the ways Zionism was experienced and interpreted by the numerous people who practiced, taught, trained, and watched sports before and after their immigration to Palestine. This article underscores the roles of sports in the Central European Zionist activism and imagination in order to present a twofold argument. First, sports provided a distinctive realm that enabled Jewish immigrants from Central Europe to assimilate into the Zionist national culture in Palestine and to influence significantly the shape of this culture. Second, for many of the German-speaking newcomers to Palestine in the 1930s, sports also provided a unique discursive sphere in which several perceptions of identity could coexist under the umbrella of Jewish nationalism.