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A group of D.C.-area Jewish athletes was feted at a bon voyage party in Potomac on Sunday. For depressing reasons, the affair was smaller than it should have been.

The guests of honor will head to Israel next week to prepare for the 16th Maccabiah Games. The competition, also called the Jewish Olympics, is held every four years with participants from around the globe.

Just as tourists aren’t flocking to Israel much these days, a lot of athletes and coaches recently opted not to take part in the upcoming games.

Fear is their primary motivation for staying put.

“People are concerned about their safety,” says Alan Sherman, a Potomac resident and member of the steering committee for Maccabi USA, the organizing body for the American delegation. “I’m not saying that anybody’s concerns aren’t legitimate, but I think some people don’t have all the facts, and some athletes have received a lot of pressure from their parents to not go.”

Sherman, a diamond wholesaler by trade, has been involved in the Maccabiah Games as an organizer since 1961. He and other Maccabi USA officials had hoped that this year’s rendition would be the best-attended event in the games’ 69-year history. Last year, Jordan Weinstein, chair of Maccabi USA, said he was expecting to send more than 700 athletes and coaches, the largest American delegation ever.

That’s not going to happen. As of last weekend, the U.S. squad had dwindled to just over 350.

Most of the cancellations came in the wake of the June 1 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Nineteen people, including many foreign students, were killed in a Friday-night attack on a seaside discothèque. Despite that massacre, Israel still holds a big lead, body-count-wise, in the latest round of West Bank-related violence. According to a recent Associated Press report, in the past 10 months, 499 Palestinians have been killed, compared with 114 Israelis.

The Maccabiah Games, to borrow a phrase used by America’s top terrorist, are collateral damage from the disco bombing. Though the games have never been the target of terrorists, reports of athletes, coaches, and prospective spectators bailing from the event quickly began reaching the headquarters of the Maccabi World Union (MWU), the international organizing body. The U.K. delegation announced that it wouldn’t be coming at all. The U.S. team’s organizers reportedly asked the MWU for a postponement of one year.

When the MWU announced it was considering such a delay, the reaction in Israel was swift and negative.

“We cannot allow fear to force us to surrender to the threat of terror,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Editors of the Jerusalem Post also opined against postponing or canceling the games.

“Delaying the games would send a loud and reprehensible message to Jews all over the world that Israel is no longer safe,” read their editorial. “What the Maccabi leadership seems to have forgotten is that the Maccabiah is more than just a sporting event—it is a symbol of the bond between Israel and the Diaspora. Rather than canceling the competition, Maccabi should demonstrate a little conviction and hold the games, come what may.”

The paper compared the Maccabiah Games to the Six Day War with Egypt, and attributed cowardice to any foreign Jews who wouldn’t come to the competition.

“Thousands of volunteers throughout the Jewish world packed their bags and came to Israel to assist in the war effort and show solidarity with the country,” said the Post. “They came despite the tangible fears that existed then regarding Israel’s ability to fend off the hostile Arab armies surrounding it. By contrast, Israel’s current plight has resulted in mass cancellations, with only an occasional ‘solidarity mission’ making the courageous pilgrimage to a hotel room in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”

Should the MWU not stick to its schedule, the paper concluded, the Israeli government had an obligation to strip the group of its sanctioning power and sponsor the World Jewish Games in place of this year’s—and all future—Maccabiah Games.

But last week, the MWU announced that there would be no postponement. Soon after, the Americans declared that they would be sending a delegation.

But not everybody on the U.S. squad abided by that decision. The wrestling and softball coaches bailed first. Then Larry Shyatt, U.S. man’s basketball coach, notified his team that he and his assistants would not be participating.

In a written statement he sent to his players, Shyatt didn’t mention the disco bombing or terrorism specifically.

“We feel that we can no longer provide the total experience that these Maccabiah games represent and still insure the safety of our team,” Shyatt wrote. “Knowing that I may lose my position and never again have this once in a lifetime experience of coaching this elite team, I feel that it is in the best interest of all to postpone our involvement.”

Shyatt also asked games officials to reconsider their decision to proceed. But rather than heed Shyatt’s advice, Maccabi USA replaced him: Herb Brown, the brother of Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown, was named the new basketball coach. (The most celebrated Jewish basketball player in the area and everywhere else, Tamir Goodman, apparently won’t be going to Maccabiah 2001, either. Goodman, the much-hyped “Jewish Jordan” who recently finished his freshman year at Towson University, tried out for the U.S. basketball squad but was cut. Six Ivy League players, however, did get invites.)

According to Sherman, the tide of cancellations has stemmed in the last week. At the going-away party, he emphasized the measures being taken to protect team members and their families during the games, the focus being to keep them on the official, very secure compound throughout the event—to “bring the disco to the athletes,” rather than have them travel off-site for nightlife. His message was well-received.

“These are people who know the Maccabiah Games are so much more than a basketball game or a swim meet,” Sherman says. “This is a chance to show solidarity with Israel, to show support for Israel, and to learn so much about our culture and heritage. There’s a great sense of mission now.”

Sherman says that he personally feels safe enough that he intends to wander away from the official compound for day trips. There are some locales that won’t be on his itinerary, however.

“I plan to do everything I had planned to do before [postponement] became an issue,” he says. “Then again, I never planned to go to the West Bank or Gaza Strip.” —Dave McKenna