American Orthodoxy

Between Berlin 1936 and Beijing 2022

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Chesky Kopel

 

No countries boycotted the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games. The Nuremberg Laws had been in effect for almost a year, institutionalizing the Nazi Party’s racist ideology throughout Germany.[1] Less than a month before the opening ceremony of the Olympics, the SS established the Sachsenhausen concentration camp 21 miles from Berlin and began to imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses.[2] In and around the Olympic Village, however, international visitors were treated to a carefully sanitized, benign version of Nazi Germany. Multiple eyewitness accounts confirm that German authorities concealed or removed antisemitic signs in Berlin and limited overt SS presence on the streets.[3]

Boycott movements had tried to persuade governments in several countries to use the games as leverage against a menacing new regime. Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, stood firmly against boycotting in 1936, explaining that “the Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians” and cautioning that athletes should not be forced into the “Jew-Nazi altercation.”[4] The boycotts failed to materialize and the games proceeded smoothly, allowing the Nazis to project respectability across the world while they developed their machinery of genocide and conquest. Two years later, in the wake of the Kristallnacht pogrom, 30,000 German Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to Sachsenhausen and other concentration camps.[5] Brundage and his colleagues avoided the interference of politics with sports for a moment in 1936, but politics caught up with them: war consumed the world, and the Olympics were not held again until the summer of 1948.[6] The failure of the 1936 boycott efforts and the dark legacy of the Berlin Olympics bear new relevance as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Genocide in Xinjiang

At this moment, the PRC regime is undertaking a campaign of repression aimed at the Uyghur population, a majority-Muslim Turkic ethnic group living in a region that the regime calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and that most Uyghurs call East Turkistan. As many as 1.5 million Uyghurs are now imprisoned in concentration camps, many subjected to forced labor, sterilization, and mandatory reeducation designed to compel Uyghur assimilation into the broader Han Chinese culture.[7] The system extends to life outside the camps as well: Uyghurs regularly face intense government surveillance and birth control policies, their language is banned from Xinjiang schools, and thousands of their mosques have been destroyed.[8] A full accounting of the ongoing atrocities is well beyond the scope of this essay. A growing list of political bodies—including the United States Department of State, a Canadian Parliamentary subcommittee, and at least 22 human rights NGOs—have concluded that the government’s actions in Xinjiang meet the legal definition of genocide, requiring intervention by the international community.[9]

Among many responses to the ongoing Uyghur genocide, activists have begun to call for relocation or—as a last resort—boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics. A July 2020 statement by the “No Rights No Games 2022” campaign called on the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) to condition the 2022 Olympics on “urgent action to ensure the camps are closed.”[10] Many opponents of the games consciously invoke the 1936 boycott movement and seek to remind world leaders of Hitler’s successful use of his Olympics “as a propaganda coup to portray the Nazis as tolerant.”[11] Although no governments have yet to formally endorse the movement, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab refused to rule out a boycott, and U.S. Senators Josh Hawley and Rick Scott have called upon the U.S. private sector to take a stand, urging NBC not to broadcast the Olympics.[12] The activists are growing louder, pointing out the pride, goodwill, and profits that the regime stands to gain from hosting the prestigious global competition; the more important the Olympics are to the PRC government, the more valuable they are as leverage.

The 1936 Boycott Movement 

The most prominent advocates of an Olympic boycott in 1936 took pains to emphasize that their goal was not to turn sports into a tool of politics. Rather, they argued that free nations must refuse to participate in an event that defies the written rules and unwritten values of the Olympics. In a 1935 pamphlet published by the Committee on Fair Play in Sports, leading Reform rabbi and Progressive Era activist Stephen Wise called upon the American Olympic Committee to “Preserve the Olympic Ideal” and formally protest Germany’s decision to exclude Jews and other disfavored demographic groups from its delegation in violation of the Olympic Code.[13] The United States had no choice but to boycott, he argued, because its participation “will necessarily appear to give sanction to the Nazi war upon non-Aryans, upon Christianity and the Churches, and upon all other dissident elements in Germany; for the way in which sports are conducted in Germany and the manner in which the German team is being selected are nothing more or less than phases of that bitter warfare.”[14]

The failure of the boycott movement enabled Hitler to host the show of prestige and goodwill that he so desperately craved. Although we can never fully know how an alternative history would have played out, the consequences of the 1936 games appear disastrous in retrospect. Writing in 2018, German historian Oliver Hilmes explained that Hitler’s Olympic display was an important factor in world governments’ perception of his regime: “It’s certain the Western powers’ abstention from the games would have thwarted Hitler’s strategy to project the image of a peace-loving statesman… These 16 days of August gave many people new hope that things would change and Hitler could be trusted to keep his promises of peace. The sporting spectacle had helped pull the wool over their eyes.”[15] Indeed, boycott advocates recognized the significance of their movement’s failure at the time. In correspondence to Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, Rabbi Wise recounted a visit to the White House shortly after the Olympics. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reported to the rabbi that he had heard good news from “tourists” at the Berlin Olympics: “The synagogues are crowded and apparently there is nothing very wrong in the situation of [Germany’s Jews] at present.” Wise sought to correct the president with evidence of institutionalized oppression, “but I could see that the tourists (whoever they were, the Lord bless them not) had made an impression upon him.”[16]

Contrary to popular mythology, Nazi Germany’s Olympic public relations coup was not diminished by the achievements of such athletes as Jesse Owens, the Black American track-and-field star who won four gold medals in Berlin, or Helene Mayer, the German Jewish fencer who won a silver medal. As Hilmes persuasively explains, although Nazi leaders privately fumed at having to endure the indignity of non-Aryan medal winners in Berlin, the Party embraced the opportunity to erect a façade of tolerance and encouraged the German crowds to cheer for these athletes.[17] Mayer was selected for the German team as a “token Jew” to appease the American boycott movement, and she performed the Nazi salute during her medal ceremony. Owens remarked years after the Olympics that he was snubbed not by Hitler, but by President Roosevelt, who never congratulated Owens or invited him to the White House, an honor reserved for white Olympians.[18] That this was apparently true is both important for understanding the painful legacy of American racism and beside the point here; by no fault of Mayer and Owens, they were effectively used for Nazi interests.

The Gates of Hope 

In Toronto, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath led the movement for a Canadian boycott of the Olympics. Eisendrath, like Wise, was known as a charismatic orator, a dogged activist, and a leading figure of Reform Judaism. Beginning in 1935, Eisendrath advocated for an Olympic boycott from his pulpit at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.[19] In his 1936 Yom Kippur sermon, just one month following the Olympics, Eisendrath used his pulpit to assess the spiritual meaning of the failure of his movement and the success of Hitler’s Olympic dream:

All the torture and terror, the madness and murder of Hitlerism was answered by well-nigh every Christian country going gaily and blithely to the Olympics, so that these master propagandists might sell their insidious ideas…with the inevitable consequence that havens of refuge which might have been mercifully opened to the harried and hunted Jew are now flung tightly closed… It is with a grim sense of reality that in every corner of the earth, the children of Israel will pray in words of atonement during the Ne’ilah service this afternoon, P’sach lonu sha’ar, be’es ne’eelas sha’ar, ki phono yom. “Open unto us, O God, Thy gates of mercy, before the closing of the gates, ere the night descends…” Could more appropriate words be found anywhere to describe the unspeakably tragic plight of the House of Israel the wide world over? One by one the shadows of night have descended; one by one the gates of hope have closed…

Desperate as our present plight indubitably is, if there is even a scintilla of Jewish faith within our hearts we need not despair completely, nor altogether abandon hope. Forever in the past, our fathers found at least one gate of hope open to Israel, a gate that was never shut in the face of him who earnestly sought to enter it. P’sach lanu sha’ar, our fathers further entreated in that selfsame Ne’ilah prayer which I have taken as this morning’s theme: “Open unto us, O Lord, Thy gate of mercy,” no’voh’oh sh’orecho: “Let us enter Thy gates.”[20]

Shut out by the world of MAN, Israel must seek refuge once again at the gate of God, where alone through all the torturous centuries, he has found succor and salvation… One gate is open to us still. The gate of Judaism, our historic faith, the one gate from which we have wandered so aimlessly and thoughtlessly away…[21]

The metaphor of certain gates closing and one remaining open alludes to the tradition of the amora R. Elazar, according to which, “From the day on which the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been locked…and even though the gates of prayer have been locked, the gates of tears have not been locked.”[22] This tradition is often considered alongside the opinion of the amora Rav that the Ne’ilah prayer is named for the locking of the gates of heaven, not the physical gates of the Temple.[23] A fusion of Rav and R. Elazar, then, suggests that certain gates between humanity and God may close at the climax of Yom Kippur, but others remain stubbornly and constantly open.

The closing gates in Rabbi Eisendrath’s sermon are not the physical gates of international boundaries closing to Jewish refugees; as of the fall of 1936, Eisendrath and other Jewish activists may not have even envisioned the extent of the coming crises of displacement and mass murder. Rather, these are the “gates of hope.” The desperate hope of the Jews was that the concern and solidarity of the free nations of the world would stand in the way of Nazi oppression. The governments’ failure to pass the test of the Olympics, therefore, represented the irreversible closure of the gates of that hope.

Rabbi Eisendrath concluded by turning away from the stage of politics and addressing only his own congregational audience. For them, he proposed a spiritual refuge in God and the Jewish tradition. As much as these words communicate a powerful belief in the reality of divine redemption, they are also unmistakably a message of defeat. The promise is not that God will force open the human gates of hope, nor even that God will redeem us in spite of human callousness, but rather that, no matter what our oppressors do to us physically, they cannot destroy our Jewish tradition. They cannot close this one gate.

Listening to 1936 in 2020

Today, we are witnessing the gates of hope close for the 12 million Uyghurs in China. Of course, no historical comparison is precise, and Holocaust comparisons tend to be especially politically fraught. However, if we preach the importance of remembering the Holocaust and at the same time refuse to invoke its memory in any other context, we are doing it wrong. Jewish communities should strive to recognize the parallels at the point of 1936, not 1944, when it is far, far too late. (In fact, there is an important mismatch between the circumstances of the 1936 and 2022 Olympics, but in the other direction: Unlike the Jews and other populations in 1936, Uyghurs are already concentrated in forced labor camps and forced to undergo sterilization, a form of genocide. Unlike Germany in 1936, the Chinese regime today is already recognized as both a world power and the steward of an economy upon which all other economies depend.)

Rabbi Eisendrath’s ultimate conclusion, pointing to refuge in God, is, of course, less relevant to Jews concerned for the fate of Uyghurs today. No one proposes that our duty to other oppressed peoples is to offer them the gates of Judaism. The point, however, is to act before the human gates of hope close to other people created in God’s image. It is also essential to recognize that the ongoing genocide is geared toward cultural assimilation; the Chinese regime’s attacks on Uyghur mosques and imams seek to deprive these people of any refuge in their own faith. The spectacle of a government engaged in genocide erecting a global display of goodwill, economic power, and progress is just as grotesque today as it was in 1936.

The current version of the Olympic Charter argues that Olympism seeks to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”[24] At the same time, the concentration camps remain open in Xinjiang. Earlier this year, the World Uyghur Congress petitioned the IOC’s Ethics Commission to issue a ruling stating that allowing the PRC regime to host the Olympics would violate the IOC’s Code of Ethics.[25] The international community was not swayed by Rabbi Wise’s invocation of the Olympic Code 85 years ago, and again it largely does not seem interested today. Jewish institutions, however—including sports organizations like Maccabi World Union and the Olympic Committee of Israel—must answer this call from Uyghur activists.

Because the event is still one year away, there remains hope that productive action can be taken. A boycott is not the only moral option left, and athletes need not be made into collateral damage and deprived of their Olympic opportunity. Rather, if enough of the international community threatens to relocate the Olympics, Chinese authorities may be compelled to reconsider their crimes in Xinjiang.

The “No Rights No Games 2022” campaign’s mission statement does not mention “boycott” but poses a simple choice to China, the International Olympic Committee, and the international community: either close the camps or relocate the Games to ensure that they are “held in a country that respects international norms.”[26] Under these terms, a token gesture to the Uyghurs is not enough, but a boycott is a clear last resort; only when all else has failed, if Beijing persists in its demand to have both its genocide and its Games and the IOC fails to act, then it becomes the responsibility of individual nations to stay away.[27]


[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Timeline of Events: Nuremberg Race Laws,” https://www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-of-events/1933-1938/nuremberg-race-laws.

[2] “Sachsenhausen,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/sachsenhausen; Johannes S. Wrobel, “Jehovah’s Witnesses in National Socialist concentration camps, 1933 – 45, Religion, State and Society 34, no. 2 (2006): 89-125.

[3] E.g., Rafael Medoff, The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2019), 29-31; Richard Menkis & Harold Troper, More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 71-72; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bibliography: 1936 Olympics, https://www.ushmm.org/collections/bibliography/1936-olympics.

[4] “The Movement to Boycott the Berlin Olympics of 1936,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-movement-to-boycott-the-berlin-olympics-of-1936.

[5] “Kristallnacht,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kristallnacht.

[6] Brundage was named president of the International Olympic Committee in 1952 and held the position for twenty years. At his final Olympics, in Munich, Germany in the summer of 1972, Brundage refused to cancel the remainder of the games following the abduction and murder of eleven Israeli athletes, citing the need to avoid politicization of sports. See Jack Ellis, “’Games must go on,’ says Brundage,” Stars and Stripes, Sept. 7, 1972, https://www.stripes.com/news/games-must-go-on-says-brundage-1.36208.

[7] See “China Suppression of Uighur Minorities Meets U.N. Definition Of Genocide, Report Says”, NPR, July 4, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/07/04/887239225/china-suppression-of-uighur-minorities-meets-u-n-definition-of-genocide-report-s; Megha Rajagopalan, Allison Killing & Christo Buschek, “China Built a Vast New Infrastructure to Imprison Muslims,” Buzzfeed News, Aug. 27, 2020, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/meghara/china-new-internment-camps-xinjiang-uighurs-muslims.

[8] “China cuts Uighur births with IUDs, abortion sterilization,” The Associated Press, June 29, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/269b3de1af34e17c1941a514f78d764c; Chris Buckley & Austin Ramzy, “China is Erasing Mosques and Precious Shrines in Xianjiang,” The New York Times, Sept. 25, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/25/world/asia/xinjiang-china-religious-site.html; Yasmeen Serhan, “Saving Uighur Culture from Genocide,” The Atlantic, Oct. 4, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/10/chinas-war-on-uighur-culture/616513/.

[9] Bill Chappell, “Pompeo Accuses China of Genocide Against Muslim Uighurs in Xianjiang,” NPR, Jan. 19, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/19/958468971/pompeo-accuses-china-of-genocide-against-muslim-uighurs-in-xinjiang;; John Paul Tasker, “Beijing erupts at Canada after parliamentary committee says China Uighur policy amounts to ‘genocide,’” CBC News, Oct. 22, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/parliamentary-committee-uighur-genocide-1.5772757; “Genocide prevention experts call for UN Commission of Inquiry on crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, Sept. 14, 2020, https://uhrp.org/press-release/genocide-prevention-experts-call-un-commission-inquiry-crimes-against-humanity-and.

[10] See https://www.norightsnogames.org/statements/. See also Ben Westcott, “Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 should not be held in China, human rights groups say in letter to IOC,” CNN, Sept. 13, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/10/asia/beijing-winter-olympics-rights-ioc-intl-hnk/index.html.

[11] Dorjee Tseten, Zumretay Arkin, Teng Biao & Frances Hui, “Beijing 2022 Olympics: Stop the ‘Genocide Games,’” The Diplomat, Nov. 11, 2020.

[12] See “Calls to boycott the Beijing winter Olympics are growing stronger,” The Economist, Nov. 8, 2020, https://www.economist.com/international/2020/11/08/calls-to-boycott-the-beijing-winter-olympics-are-growing-stronger.

[13] Preserve the Olympic Ideal: A Statement of the Case Against American Participation in the Olympic Games at Berlin (New York: The Committee on Fair Play in Sports, 1935). I am very grateful to Ora Weinbach for her invaluable assistance in locating and interpreting the pamphlet.

[14] Ibid., 30-31. Wise’s legacy of activism on behalf of European Jewry throughout the Holocaust era is the subject of extensive criticism. See generally Medoff, The Jews Should Keep Quiet. This essay focuses on Wise’s leadership in the Olympic boycott movement specifically.

[15] Oliver Hilmes, “Olympic Appeasement: The United States’ acquiescence to Hitler at the 1936 Games helped fuel the rise of Nazi Germany,” Slate, Feb. 9, 2018, https://slate.com/culture/2018/02/the-united-states-olympic-appeasement-in-1936-helped-fuel-the-rise-of-nazi-germany.html.

[16] Medoff, The Jews Should Keep Quiet, 31.

[17] JP O’Malley, “How the Nazis’ token Jew turned the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a propaganda win,” The Times of Israel, Mar. 10, 2018, https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-the-nazis-token-jew-turned-the-1936-berlin-olympics-into-a-propaganda-win/. For Hilmes’ full study of the subject, composed in narrative diary format, see Oliver Hilmes, Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August (London: Vintage Publishing UK, 2018).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Menkis & Troper, More than Just Games, 70-71, 103-04.

[20] Inconsistencies in translation and transliteration appear in the original text, preserved in the archives of Holy Blossom Temple.

[21] Menkis & Troper, More than Just Games, 213-14 (excerpting a portion of the sermon); Marc Saperstein, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution & Mass Murder: 1933-1945 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2018), 271-72 (excerpting a different portion).

[22] Berakhot 32b; Bava Metsia 59a. See also ibid. for an alternative formulation: “R. Hisda said, all gates are locked except for the gates of [prayer for those victimized by] fraud.”

[23] Y. Berakhot 31a. For a contemporary Yom Kippur sermon juxtaposing these two traditions, see Ilana Kurshan,” Nicanor and Yonah: A Meditation to Precede Tefilah Neilah,” Sept. 28, 2017, https://ilanakurshan.com/2017/09/28/nicanor-and-yonah-a-meditation-to-precede-tefilat-neilah/.

[24] Olympic Charter, Fundamental Principle 2, available at https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/General/EN-Olympic-Charter.pdf.

[25] Benedict Rogers, “What to Do About the 2022 Beijing Olympics?,” The Diplomat, Sept. 10, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/09/what-to-do-about-the-2022-beijing-olympics/.

[26] https://www.norightsnogames.org/statements/.

[27] The role of the Olympics as an apolitical global celebration of sports remains relevant. Even if we avoid the maximalist position that only democratic countries may host Olympics, genocide must be our line. Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish lawyer who first defined the crime of genocide, expressed this point through his successful advocacy for the adoption of the Genocide Convention, a multilateral treaty criminalizing genocide. In response to the contemporaneous movement for legalization of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lemkin wrote that attempting to prohibit every form of human rights abuse would decrease respect for and compliance with international law and would thereby diminish the international community’s ability to eliminate the greatest crime of all. See Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 74-75.