Israeli Judoka Wins World Championship

What Happened?

Israeli judo competitor, or “judoka,” Sagi Muki took home the gold at the World Judo Championship in Tokyo on Wednesday, becoming the first Israeli man to do so. He has recovered from an injury that set him back at the 2016 Rio Olympics, in which he finished fifth place. (Israelis Yarden Gerbi and Ori Sasson won bronze medals at the Rio Games.) Muki competed in the middleweight category (73-81 kg); in the semi-finals, he defeated Egyptian judoka Mohamed Abdelaal, who refused to shake Muki’s hand afterward. At the medal ceremony, Muki sang along as “Hatikvah” was played in the arena.


The athletic seeds are planted – Early Zionist thinker Max Nordau first proposed the idea of “muscle Judaism.” He saw the need to cultivate a “new Jew” who was physically capable. He stated, “Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men… Our new muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas…” Since Nordau’s day, the Jewish people has certainly regained that physical “heroism” that was lacking in the persecuted Jew throughout centuries. Israeli pioneers worked the land and built up a country. Since 1948, Israel has cultivated sports teams and athletes that compete nationally and internationally. And, of course, there is the IDF, a top-notch army with outstanding capabilities. Israel does face challenges on the court, though; it has political rivals that do not display good sportsmanship when Israel is involved. This week, we take a deeper look at Israeli sports by diving into Israel’s most successful sport to date: judo.

Why judo? Five out of Israel’s nine total Olympic medals are in judo. Why is Israel succeeding in this sport, of all things? Israel’s success in judo began with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in which judokas Yael Arad and Oren Smadja won Israel’s first-ever Olympic medals. Israel Judo Association President Moshe Ponte estimates that as many as 70,000 Israelis are active in judo today. He describes judo as a “sport with values. Respect for your rival, respect for the organization and discipline, discipline, discipline.” Sports psychologist Dr. Iris Orbach adds: “Mental training is an integral part of preparation. Israelis are used to struggles…” Jerusalem Post sports reporter Allon Sinai points to more pragmatic considerations: “There are three main components required to succeed in any sport, Olympic sports in particular: Physical compatibility, financial investment and experience… Israeli judo is at a point where it has achieved all three.” He adds that there is a low barrier to entry, and that judo remains an obscure sport in many countries, which gives Israel an edge when competing in international competitions.

Why Zionism —  and what does the story of Sagi Muki have to do with Zionism?

As we’ve written about in the past, there are three main frameworks for how to think about the purpose of Zionism and Israel. 

  1. The Jewish state should exist in order to serve as a safe haven from all the anti-semitism in the world.
  2. The Jewish state should exist in order for the Jewish people to be like everyone else, to be a nation like the rest of the nations of the world.
  3. The Jewish state should exist in order to be exceptional and serve as a “light unto the nations.”

Those who associate their Zionism with the second reason want Israel to be normal and accepted like everyone else. At the United Nations, there is a desire to belong. When Israel wins Eurovision, there is tremendous pride. When Israel wins medals at the Olympics, it feels good. (As an aside, check out our Munich Olympics video with the accompanying lesson plan.) When an Israeli wins a medal on the world stage, it is a sort of vindication for many Jews around the world. “We have a seat at the table. We have a voice. We have self-determination like all of you.” Famous early Zionists debated the very point of Zionism. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wanted to create what he called a “geza psychologi chadash shel Yehudi” a “new psychological breed of Jews.” Like Nordau’s vision, this Jew would be strong and self-reliant. Another, less well-known early Zionist, Micha Yosef Birditchevsky declared, “Anachnu hador haacharon shel hayehudim vehador harishon shel ha’ivrim.” “We are the last generation of Jews and the first generation of Hebrews.” Quite the extreme statement, but let’s understand what he was advocating for – what he perceived as a healthy Jew, someone with self-esteem and grit. Whether we agree with these early Zionists or not, the pride many Jews across the globe feel can be attributed to this acknowledgment that we are our own people, which is something that was denied to us for centuries. 

In many ways, Israel’s success on the world stage fulfills one of the missions of Zionism.

Why Does This Matter?

Israel on the world stage – As mentioned above, Muki’s Egyptian opponent refused to shake his hand, as is the custom, at the end of their match. Sadly, this is not unusual. In 2017, a UAE judoka refused to shake hands with Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul; in 2016, an Egyptian judoka refused to shake hands with Ori Sasson. Often, competitors from Arab countries will forfeit matches against Israelis altogether. In 2017, Israeli competed in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament. There, Israeli competitors were barred from wearing Israeli uniforms, and, when they won, the Israeli flag was not flown nor was “Hatikvah” played. Israel was the only country singled out in such a way. After last week’s competition, President Donald Trump’s Israel advisor Jason Greenblatt tweeted: “Condolences to Mohamed Abdelaal who lost 2x today- once as an athlete and once as a decent person.” (See discussion questions for more on this.)

Israel’s place – Ever wonder why Israel competes in European competitions, when Israel is not in Europe? Mishy Harman, in his Israel Story podcast, reminds us that ever since 1948, international sports associations did not know what to do with Israel. To which continent did Israel belong? Europe, Africa, Asia? Asia makes the most sense geographically. From 1954-1974 Israel competed in the Asian Games, but at some point Turkey and Indonesia refused to play against Israel, and games in Iran got out of hand. In 1982, Israel was excluded from the Asian Games for “political reasons” and was cited as a “security risk due to conflict with other Arab nations.” In 1986, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, came up with a somewhat strange solution: Israel competed with Oceania. In 1990-1, Israel joined European associations, which enables them to play in the European Championships and other European competitions. Today, many Asian and African countries do not allow their athletes to compete against Israel. Even in Europe, Israeli athletes often meet with hostility, such as in 2013 when Hungarian fans chanted “stinking Jews” and “Heil Benito Mussolini.” Also, competing in the European division for the World Cup hurts Israel’s chance of making it to the top, as they play against the world’s top teams to qualify. 

Jewish and Israeli pride – It’s not every day that Israel, a tiny country, wins an international sporting competition. When Israeli athletes bring home big titles, it’s a source of great pride for most Israelis and Jewish people around the world. Muki’s mother described her pride and excitement over her son’s win; she watched every moment of the match, while Muki’s father preferred to read Tehillim, Psalms. PM Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: “World champion! Awesome Sagi Muki – you brought tremendous respect and pride to all of us.” President Reuven Rivlin also took to Twitter: “Sagi Muki is @Judo world champion! Your achievement makes us so proud and teaches us that hard work, humanity and a hand always extended in peace can conquer the greatest heights. Congratulations on your gold medal and thank you for the pride you bring us all as #Israelis.” Clearly, pride is a major factor here.