The 14th European Maccabi Games — dubbed the "Jewish Olympics" — kicked off tonight at the site of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Some 2,300 Jewish athletes from 36 countries have gathered in Berlin for the 2015 edition of the games, which will run through August 5.
The Waldbühne arena was built for the 1936 Olympic games — which saw non-Aryan athletes banned from the German team — and was originally named after Dietrich Eckart, Hitler's mentor.
Alon Meyer, president of Maccabi Germany, described the sporting event as "the games of reconciliation," while German Chancellor Angela Merkel highlighted the competition's "strong historical and political significance."
The games are open to Jewish athletes and Israelis of religions. They will feature 19 competitions, including tennis, triathlon swimming, and other traditional Olympic sports, in addition to chess, bridge, and bowling.
Georges Haddad, president of Maccabi France and head of the French delegation, said that despite initial "reluctance" over the decision to host the games in Berlin, "no one regrets the choice today."
"Coming to Germany is also an act of solidarity with the German Jewish community and is the opportunity to pay tribute to those who perished [in the Holocaust]," Haddad told VICE News.
Haddad, whose son coaches the French Maccabi basketball team, said the games opened with a basketball victory for the French team, which won 92-63 against Germany.
German President Joachim Gauck addressed the crowd during the games' opening ceremony, which also featured a performance by Matsiyahu, an American musician known for fusing Judaism with reggae and hip-hop. "It will be very emotional to hear the German anthem and the Hatikvah [the national anthem of Israel] at the opening ceremony," Haddad said.
The European Maccabi Games grew out of the Maccabi movement, which dates back to the 19th century, when Jews in Turkey who had been excluded from other sports clubs decided to found their own organization. "The first Maccabi to be founded in Israel was the Tel Aviv Maccabi in 1902," Haddad said,referring to one of the largest modern sports clubs in Israel.
The first European Maccabi Games were held in Prague in 1929, but the event was discontinued with the rise of Nazism in Germany. The games returned in 1969 following a long hiatus, and are now held every four years to alternate with the Maccabiah Games in Israel, which were first held in 1932 and always take place one year after the Summer Olympics.
While the event is called the European Maccabi Games, non-European nations have also been invited to compete, including the US, Argentina, Australia, and Canada. Germany will have the biggest delegation at the games, with 376 competing athletes, followed by the US, with 211 athletes. France is sending 100 competitors to the German capital, while Ireland will be represented by just one athlete.
Over the years, major sports celebrities have competed in the games, including American swimmer Mark Spitz, who took part in the 1965 edition and went on to break a record when he won seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. NBA veteran Amar'e Stoudemire was named assistant coach of the Canadian basketball team for the 2013 Maccabiah Games.
The games in Berlin will be played out against the backdrop of a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. Following violent acts of anti-Semitism in Paris and Copenhagen in January and February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Europe's Jews to make aliyah and immigrate to Israel, which he said awaited them "with open arms." According to French radio RFI, the Israeli government has set up a special assistance program to encourage participating athletes to make aliyah.
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