The Palm Court
Israeli football was born on a dusty pitch in Tel Aviv in the 1920s
The Palm Court was the name of a scrappy little stadium by the rail tracks in Jaffa, overlooked by a few tall date palms. The name was a sardonic reference to grand hotels like The Ritz in London or the Alexandria in Los Angeles, where dance orchestras played the new jazz hits under glass ceilings. The playing surface was often hard and dry, but the night before the match a winter storm blew in from the sea. The weather in Jaffa is almost always unseasonably hot, no matter the season, but when the weather breaks, the sky turns to slate and the rain comes down hard. The football ground was laid out in what had once been orchards, beneath a long high ridge that had sheltered the fruit trees. The ridge was no longer much shelter, as new paved roads created a slick surface for the rainwater. The water cascaded downwards, too fast for the drains to carry to the sea or for the earth to absorb. At dawn, a construction crew began filling the puddles and repairing the surface with barrowloads of fresh sandy soil. The old orchards were still designated as farmland under Ottoman zoning laws, though the fruit trees had been cleared to leave just those few stray swaying palms. To the east there was a long row of tin-sided workshops. To the west, a breeze-block clubhouse known as the Maccabi barracks, a reminder of the Maccabi sports club’s origins in 1905 as a kind of military boys’ brigade.
This was 8 January 1924. Jaffa was the main seaport of Palestine and had been under British control since it was captured from the Ottoman Army of the Levant on 16 November 1917. The home side, Maccabi Tel Aviv, took its name from the new Jewish suburb on the hills above the orchard. The name ‘Tel Aviv’ combines an archaeological term for a fortified mound, ‘Tel’, with the Hebrew word for ‘spring time’. It was the building of the suburb that had caused the pitch to flood. The visitors were the all-conquering Hakoah Vienna, the football team of the Austrian city’s Jewish sports club. With 5000 members, Hakoah Vienna was not only the biggest sports club in Austria, but probably the largest in all of Europe. The team arrived with a 90-strong entourage, comprising athletes and well-wishers. Their short Middle Eastern tour had begun in Egypt with games in Alexandria and Cairo, and would continue against British military sides in Haifa and Jerusalem, but the biggest crowds turned out for this all-Jewish game.
By 8am, a thousand people were waiting to greet Hakoah off the Egypt train at Tel Aviv’s brand-new station. By the afternoon, 10,000 spectators had descended on the Palm Court – and the workmen were still struggling to dry out the ground. The crowd were held back from the pitch by British and Jewish policemen. Many clambered on the roofs of the surrounding barracks and makeshift buildings. The best views came from the single wooden stand, reserved for the local celebrities and dignitaries, including the grandest of all, Sir Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner for Palestine.
The war-time occupation of Palestine had officially ended in 1920 when Britain’s allies recognised British imperial rule over the country. Sir Herbert, a Liberal politician from a Liverpool family, was the first Jewish ruler of Palestine since the Roman era, something that had become a point of pride for the British and, indeed, Sir Herbert himself. He cut a dandyish figure at the football match in his tropical dress whites, the long white ostrich feathers on his helmet flapping in the winter breeze.
Before the game kicked off, the crowd was treated to gymnastic displays. Athletes paraded in white to represent youth, purity and the classical age of the first Greek Olympics. The original Maccabi had rebelled against Greek rule in the second century bc (maccabi means ‘hammer’ in Aramaic), so a cynic might feel the Greek allusions were out of place, but the club put on an impressive show. The girls in their long skirts, the men in slacks, performing star jumps and synchronised dips and bends, ending with the famous showstopper: a human menorah. This polished routine had been choreographed by the club secretary, a 24-year-old ex-soldier named Yosef Yekutieli who had served as a gym instructor in the Ottoman army. A photograph of Yosef taken in 1929 shows him in his Maccabi uniform, which resembles the dress whites of a naval officer. He and Sir Herbert would have made a matching pair on that blustery wintery day on the Palm Court.
After the gymnastic display, the party from Hakoah Vienna – players, gymnasts, swimmers, wrestlers and officials – paraded beneath their blue and white club banner embroidered with the Star of David symbol. The Maccabi sent out a brass band and quiet fell as the Palm Court echoed to the first notes of the British national anthem, ‘God Save the King’, followed by ‘Hatikvah’, the song of the Jewish nationalist party, the Zionist Organisation (ZO). The entire display was designed to resemble a state event and Yosef held himself like a state official. His great dream was to lead a team from the Maccabi at the Olympics. He had pinned his hopes of Olympic glory on membership of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
Unfortunately, six months earlier, Yosef’s application to the IAAF had failed because the association did not see how a Jewish sports club could represent the whole population of Palestine. There were 85,000 Jews living across the country according to the 1922 census, or 11 per cent of Palestine’s population. It was only in Jaffa and the surrounding district that the Jewish population had grown to be a real demographic force. The same 1922 census put the population of Jaffa at almost 48,000, of which 20,000 were Jewish, while a further 15,000 Jews lived in Tel Aviv. The numbers continued to rise as construction work attracted Jewish workers from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and beyond.
At the kick-off, the teams faced each other in the classic footballing line-up: the ‘pyramid’ formation, comprising five forwards, three midfield players and just two defenders at the rear. The centre of the Maccabi’s attacking line was Abie Wilson, a kind of young prince of the community. The 24-year-old athlete was not only a star sportsman, he also came from one of the wealthiest local families. Like almost all of Jaffa’s original pre-war Jewish yishuv, or community, Abie was Russian. A Russian sect named Bnei Moshe [Sons of Moses] had started building a community in Jaffa from the mid-1890s. All of the most important Jewish figures in Jaffa were connected to the sect. Abie’s father, Shmuel Natan Vishnitsky, arrived in the port in 1910, after six years in the United States where he had acquired the new family name of Wilson. Shmuel was Jaffa’s biggest building contractor, responsible for the line of mansions and apartment blocks above the Palm Court. It was his work crew that had struggled so hard to make the pitch playable. The freshly painted white lines, shimmering on the muddy ground, disappeared soon after Abie Wilson kicked off and the players began chasing the heavy leather ball in their equally heavy boots. The Maccabi kit had blue and white vertical stripes. Hakoah also wore a blue and white strip, supplied by their manager, Arthur Baar, who owned a sports outfitters in Vienna. As long as no one got too muddy, the players and spectators could distinguish the half-and-half design of the Hakoah strip from the vertical lines of the Maccabi.
The 1920s saw the Viennese and Hungarian football clubs refine the basic pyramid formation, in an innovation that became known as the Danubian School. The players needed to know the system and believe the forwards would run into space to find the ball. In fact, not all the Hakoah players. knew each other at all. The striker, Ernő Schwarz, had joined the team only three weeks earlier. But on a slow and waterlogged pitch Hakoah did not need to play avant-garde football. They were faster, fitter and more skilful. The Vienna league had turned professional in the 1923-24 season and Hakoah had the innovative idea of recruiting players from abroad. The state of Austria was not yet six years old, a product of the wartime disintegration of the old Habsburg Empire. Hakoah were not looking any further than the old Habsburg cities to scout talented Jewish players. Yet many German-speaking nationalists in Austria condemned the creation of a multinational team full of Czech and Hungarian Jews. Despite the disapproval, the Hakoah policy paid off immediately. Men such as Schwarz and the great centre-half Béla Guttmann, both from Budapest, turned the team into a fearsome side, moving quickly as they made short and accurate passes, and always looking for goals. Hakoah were relentless against Maccabi Tel Aviv, scoring five times while the goalkeeper, Sándor Fábián, easily kept out any shot from the Maccabi.
The IAAF’s rejection of Yosef’s application had been a blow to his dreams of leading a Jewish team at the Olympics. However, Yosef knew that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) offered another path to Olympic glory. FIFA was still part of the Olympic movement in the 1920s. Watching the Hakoah team demolish the Maccabi was far from demoralising. It proved inspirational. The match was a turning point. From 1924, the Maccabi began to pour resources into football that had previously gone into physical fitness drills and gymnastics.
The 1920s and 1930s were the decades of flappers, of youth and glamour, which celebrated the body beautiful. Hakoah produced many sports stars, such as the wrestler Nikolaus ‘Micki’ Hirschl and the swimmer Hedy Bienenfeld. The athletes promoted the club in photographic series, while the most successful and attractive worked as professional models: Hedy posed in her swimming costume to promote cigarettes, as though to prove that fire and water could mix. Hundreds of photographs survive of the young men and women in the club’s heyday, professionally posed, all confidently promoting the health and fitness lifestyle. The idea that sports clubs could help celebrate ethnic identity was on the rise across Central and Eastern Europe. The first European sports club based on an ethnic identity was the Czech ‘Sokol’, founded in Prague in the 1860s to boost Czech nationalism.
In Vienna, however, not all Jewish sports lovers were comfortable with a Jewish-only club. Many preferred the socialist sporting clubs or those with a mixed membership like Rapid Vienna or Amateure (which became the present-day Austria Wien), both of which included Jews among their founder members. Many Hakoah members joined for the social life; the dances were legendary and the club had Vienna’s best dance orchestra, which was quite an achievement in the city of music.
Yosef noted the effort put into Hakoah’s touring schedule: it was relentless. Hakoah aimed to be the world’s Jewish team. The club not only wanted to deepen ties of friendship and solidarity among Jews everywhere, but also to represent Jews as their sporting ambassadors. The football team was the first foreign side to play an international in Czechoslovakia, and also travelled to play major European clubs such as Fiorentina and Olympique Marseilles. In 1923, a two-leg match against London’s West Ham United attracted a crowd of 40,000 in Vienna, where Hakoah earned a creditable draw. The summer return match at Upton Park brought a far greater shock: Hakoah won 5–0 in front of a large crowd that included the fanatical Jewish football fans of London’s East End. The West Ham team is said to have been made up largely of reserves. If so, it was foolish to underestimate Hakoah. The victory over West Ham was the first time an English side had ever been beaten on English soil by a foreign team.
Although Abie Wilson was the captain of the Maccabi team, it was something of an honorary position. The Maccabi were run by a player-coach, Shimon ‘Lumek’ Ratner. Lumek had actually played for Hakoah, though only as a 16-year-old junior before the war. He was the Yishuv’s best player and, once his side was five goals down, his old friends in Hakoah allowed him to score a consolation goal for the sake of the team and the spectators.
The crowd surrounding the Palm Court brought out a few curious Palestinians, including a small shrewd man named Issa al-Issa, the editor of the long-running nationalist newspaper, Falastin, or ‘Palestine’. The sight of the Jewish Yishuv, gathered together in force, waving flags and singing anthems, led Issa to write a fiery editorial in the form of a letter to Sir Herbert. The British had banned both the Yishuv and the Palestinians from flying their flags or singing nationalist songs. The High Commissioner defended Yosef’s pre-match entertainment, however, by claiming the songs and banners only represented sports associations. It was a convenient explanation, rather than the truth, as Issa knew.
In a roundabout way, however, the match had a positive effect on Falastin’s sports coverage. Issa expanded the number of sports pages and launched a campaign for a national football league. The same year, his 24-year-old nephew, Daoud al-Issa, helped found a team to represent Jaffa’s Christian Orthodox Church. The family were stalwarts of Jaffa’s Christian community (Issa is the Arabic equivalent of the name ‘Jesus’). The team founded by Daoud in 1924 survives today as Sons of Jaffa Orthodox FC, still run by descendants of the parish priest of Jaffa during British rule. When Daoud al-Issa took over from his uncle as the editor of Falastin, he devoted more pages to the sports news, and even introduced a dedicated football column.
The 1924 Hakoah visit changed football in the country, but it also had a huge impact on the politics. Everything in Israel and Palestine eventually comes down to politics, of course. As Issa al-Issa saw, football has an almost mystical ability to mobilise a city’s population. What he failed to see was how transient this show of unity could be. Football also has the power to split communities, bringing buried antagonisms of class and nationality to the surface.
Exactly a year after their visit to Palestine, Hakoah Vienna returned for a second visit. On a fast dry pitch, they brought their real game – and it was breathtaking. Maccabi Tel Aviv were thrashed 11-2. The Maccabi boys were amateurs, playing
the greatest Hakoah team of all. A few months later, Hakoah would win the 1925 Viennese league, becoming the de facto Austrian champions. The goal that made them champions came late – and was dramatic. The goalkeeper Sándor Fábián broke his arm in a collision with a player for the opposition Simmeringer SC. The rules did not allow for substitutions, so Fábián bound his arm into a sling and switched places with an outfield player. With Simmering ahead 3-2, Fábián somehow bundled the ball over the line in a tussle that levelled the scored at 3-3. Hakoah had the trophy. They were riding high, indisputably one of the best teams in the world. But the sports fans in Jaffa and Tel Aviv could not simply accept that the Maccabi team was so easily outclassed. They wondered, instead, why the team had put up such a poor show. How had they been defeated twice, by such huge margins, on their own Palm Court?
Sir Herbert’s colonial administration brought many Russian Jews into government as civil servants, building contractors, commanders in the new police force and town planners. Yosef Yekutieli’s day job gave him responsibility for compulsory purchase orders, buying Palestinian-owned land for the British-funded electrification programme. From electricity to roads,to railway stations, the Yishuv was laying down the framework for present-day Israel. Yet these achievements also fomented grievances. Newer immigrants thought the Russians were guilty of inertia and favouritism. The criticism was especially sharp among football players. The youngest members of Maccabi Tel Aviv came from the same cities as the Hakoah stars: from Austria and Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Football was part of the lifeblood of young men in these industrial cities. The sport mattered to them in ways that it could never do to gymnasts and drill instructors such as Yosef and his pals on the Maccabi’s committees.
The anger began to grow over the summer of 1925, as the senior squad of Maccabi Tel Aviv undertook a European tour. The players received payments, amounting to a wage which effectively professionalised the team. The tour took them to Vienna, where they played and lost against Hakoah yet again, before continuing around Czech and Polish cities. Back in Jaffa and Tel Aviv, many Maccabi members believed the most skilful players were stuck in the junior team, where they were being denied the opportunity of travel, fun, money and perhaps even glory. The junior team responded by resigning en masse and joining the sports association of the socialist party.
The youth-team rebellion helped to create one half of Israel’s present-day landscape: the Labour Party. The year 1925 was a watershed for the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. The British government recalled Sir Herbert and simultaneously imposed austerity measures, which brought the construction sector in Palestine to a standstill. The economy soured, Jewish immigration went into reverse. A year later, in 1926, a 27-year-old industrialist named Menachem Arber founded the Beitar sports association in Tel Aviv. Arber had been a star football player as a child before the war, and was now the young boss of the family’s cement business. He was also from a Russian family and had known Yosef Yekutieli since childhood. But he rejected Yosef’s obsession with the Olympics and international sporting associations. Instead, he wanted to return to what he saw as the original Maccabi mission: a fit, strong fighting force. In the 1930s, Beitar evolved into an underground terrorist cell that played a bit of football on the side. Indirectly, the Hakoah games fed resentments that would define both sport and politics in the new state of Israel.
This is an edited extract from Nicholas Blincoe’s book More Noble than War: A History of Football in Israel and Palestine (Constable)