When you were a kid, you heard the Maccabiah Games advertised by hard-driving JCC swim instructors as a quadrennial Diasporic jamboree—an event where American Olympic legend Mark Spitz could swim as one Jew among many, rather than as the only Jew in the pool. This year, though, the Israeli government seems to be approaching the Games more as a recruitment opportunity for its own Olympic team. Last night’s opening ceremony in Ramat Gan, just outside Tel Aviv, welcomed athletes from 65 countries with fireworks and trick cyclists on lit-up bicycles, along with an exploding offer from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry of $1,000 for sports gear and $300 a month in scholarships for competitors who decide to stay. “Today they represent their countries, but I hope that in the next Games many of them will march under the Israeli flag and become an inseparable part of the Israeli Olympics team,” Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said.
But as the Jerusalem Post’s Amir Mizroch points out, if the Israelis were really serious about increasing their medal haul at the London Games in 2012—from just one in Beijing last year, for windsurfer Shahar Zubari—the absorption, sports, and employment ministries would team up to subsidize overseas travel for Jewish athletes in order to make sure the Maccabiah doesn’t become “the Rich Jews’ Olympics.” In the meantime, though, we won’t hold our breath waiting to see whether first-time Maccabean (and first-time visitor to Israel) Jason Lezak, the 33-year-old who anchored the U.S. relay team to victory at the Water Cube and helped win Michael Phelps his eight gold medals, decides to take the bait.