Back to Home

On Arabs and Jews and Rowing

It was a dream back in the 1930s — that rowing might bring Jews and Arabs together in the tumultuous years before the state of Israel was established. And so competitive Jewish rowers, who were being banned from racing in Nazi Germany, were encouraged to move to Israel and start a rowing club.

Author Sybil Terres Gilmar, a Philadelphia rower, discovered the Tel Aviv Rowing Club a few years ago and became fascinated by its history. I just finished her new novel, Rowing Home, based on the club which was founded in 1935 on Tel Aviv’s Yarkon River.

It is a movingly written story of young German Jewish athletes who are in love with the sport and are competing as part of Germany’s top crews at an international level. They are likely to win seats in the eight-oared crew for the 1936 Olympics.

Until they’re ousted from the team. Because they are Jewish.

Rower George Grossinger’s father, the editor of a proudly independent newspaper, finds himself constantly dodging censors, no longer able to publish the truth of what is happening. His mother. a talented violinist, has lost her long-held position with the orchestra, not to mention her many students. And even though George and his Jewish teammates are not religious, Hitler’s long reach into everyone’s ancestry has made it clear that their only hope to ever compete again– indeed, their only hope to stay alive –is to go to a land full of swamps and mosquitoes, unlike the country of their birth.

Among those encouraging them to emigrate is a young British officer stationed in Tel Aviv, who is also in love with rowing. His job is to keep the peace between Arabs and Jews, both claiming territory under the British protectorate. Taking his scull out on the Yarkon River, he discovers that the Arab youths who watch him glide by are clamoring for rowing lessons. So are the pioneering young Jews now working the land.

An idea forms: sport might overcome enmity. But he needs top notch rowers to train them. His quest coincides with the plight of the German rowers. But how to get them to Tel Aviv when passage is largely blocked? How to transport expensive rowing shells across Europe and the Mediterranean? And who will pay for such an outlandish idea?

In late October, just weeks after Hamas’ barbarous attack on Israelis, I sat next to Gilmar at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in Philadelphia as both of tried to sell our books to rowers and their families. “All I want to do,” Gilmar said, “is help people understand Israel.”

This week, Tom Friedman of the New York Times also tried to help readers understand the largely unwritten stories of Arabs and Jews working together. He wrote about the Israeli Arab Bedouin driver who dodged bullets to drive to the festival under Hamas attack to rescue the young Jews he had taken there just days before; the Arab who after the attack repaired safe room doors for Jews –for free; and survivors of the massacre– both Arab and Jewish — who were treated at Israeli hospitals where many of the doctors and nurses are now Israeli Arabs.

“The seeds of coexistence,” Friedman writes , “small as they might be, have never been more important than they are right now.”

For background on Jewish rowing clubs in Germany in the 1930s, see this post on Hear the Boat Sing

And this review of Sybil Gilmar’s book

New Novel: Rowing Home