“Israel is a judo empire,” declared Or Sasson after he and Yarden Gerbi both won bronze medals in judo at the Rio Olympics Game.
Sasson and Gerbi’s success isn’t the only reason why some are calling judo Israel’s new national sport. Here are six more reasons:
Five of Israel’s nine Olympic medals at Rio have come from judo. The other four were from sailing and canoeing.
Israel’s first two Olympic medals were in judo at the 1992 Barcelona Games when Yael Arad won the silver in women’s half middleweight and Oren Smadja won the bronze in men’s lightweight. The medals were won on the 20th anniversary of the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich.
The sport gained even more attention when an Egyptian opponent refused to shake hands with Sasson after losing a contest in Rio — prompting boos from the crowd.
Since the 1990s, judo has become an extremely popular sport with Israeli kids, and now rivals soccer. According to Moshe Fonti, the head of the Israeli Judo Association, there are 60,000 Israeli children enrolled in Judo classes. “Every other kid in Israel does it,” he told the Associated Press.
Judo techniques were an inspiration for Krav Maga, the popular Israeli self-defense system that is taught across the globe. Krav Maga was invented by the martial artist Imi Lichtenfeld to defend the Jewish quarter of Bratislava, Czechosolovakia against fascist attacks. He then imported it to Israel, where it was refined by the Israel Defense Forces.
Judo was actually used to help professionalize Krav Maga in Israel. In the 1960s, judo training became an official part of Krav Maga training. Israelis had no way to grade Krav Maga students, so they tested them based on their knowledge of judo instead.
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.