Abigail Klein Leichman
September 6, 2010, Updated September 14, 2012

In a precedent-setting accomplishment, PeacePlayers Middle East is entering four Jewish-Arab teams in the Israel National Basketball League.

basketball peace players

As the Peace Players children get to know each other, a ‘color blindness’ takes hold, and no one stops to think which ‘side’ a child belongs to.

If Halid and David had not joined the PeacePlayers basketball program in 2005, they probably wouldn’t have met – at least, not under good circumstances.

David, a Jewish teen, immigrated alone to Israel from Ethiopia at age 12. Halid comes from a poor Arab village where people are mistrustful of Jews. But they got to know each other when their teams came together for activities, and later they both joined an integrated league team. Now completing a coaching certification program together, the boys volunteer with younger players and in social action projects in their communities.

“They help each other,” says Karen Doubilet, managing director of PeacePlayers International – Middle East (PPI-ME). “Halid is an amazing role model for his community. And David, who was at first shy and suffered from low self-esteem, is a young leader now,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

This year, PPI-ME will enter four integrated teams in the Israel National Basketball League, two in Jaffa and two in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem teams will be the first to feature players from both East and West Jerusalem. “We are so proud of this precedent-setting accomplishment,” Doubilet reports.

Uniting and educating through basketball

PeacePlayers International was founded in 2001 by Sean Tuohey and his brother Brendan, on the premise that “children who play together can learn to live together.” The global non-profit organization uses basketball to unite children and develop leaders in conflict and post-conflict regions. PPI runs programs in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, South Africa, and New Orleans, where its initiative was recently handed over to a local partner.

In Israel, the locally led charity aims to unite and educate Jewish and Arab youth and their communities through basketball. Its curriculum, developed in partnership with the Arbinger Institute, a US-based consultancy, combines on-court experiential learning with open dialogue.

basketball peace players

Members of the Peace Players Middle East basketball program.

More than 300 children were registered in PPI-ME programs last year. “In our new year we should have about 750 kids,” says Doubilet. The children come primarily from East and West Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh (in the Jerusalem district) and environs, and Jaffa. “We work with schools, community centers, and sports clubs to recruit children, and in smaller villages we use word of mouth.”

The program targets ethnically and religiously diverse populations, including Ethiopian, Russian, and American immigrants, and works toward gender equality through sports in both Jewish and Arab communities. A single-identity, capacity-building program in the West Bank provides another outlet for underprivileged children and an additional training opportunity for Arab coaches.

Achieving color-blindness

“PPI is a long-term program for ages 10 to 15, so you see them developing as teammates and friends,” says Doubilet, a Toronto native with a background in conflict resolution and experience with the Peres Center for Peace. “At the start it’s awkward and there’s a language barrier, and some kids have never met the ‘other side’ before. As they become better players and a more integrated team, they become better friends and many friend each other on Facebook.”

Later on, she continues, the kids are eager to meet with the ‘other side’ and tour communities they’ve never ventured into previously. “At one point, you see a ‘color blindness’ has developed. There is quite a difference from beginning to end.”

When the organization runs a ‘fun day’ to introduce the free program, usually more children want to register than there are places to accommodate them.

“Our local staff members are key,” relates Doubilet. “We utilize American post-collegiate scholar/athletes who serve as ‘neutralizers’ and work with local coaches and program managers to build excitement. The initial draw isn’t about meeting with the ‘other side,’ but about fun and basketball.”

Peace education and life skills combined

She admits that parents sometimes need a bit of persuasion to give their permission, “but I’ve never seen it really getting in the way. Parents are less reluctant to have their kids participate locally than if they go on one of our retreats or trips. In those circumstances, they have to be reassured that there are always people from their community there in addition to me, whether a local coach or siblings. I also invite them to speak with other parents whose kids have participated before.”

Doubilet explains that basketball, Israel’s second most popular sport behind soccer, is a particularly intimate sport because just five players are on the court during a game. Therefore, players understand that communication among them is essential.

Children are required to participate at least twice a week, and may come as often as five times per week. Some kids are involved in more than one PPI initiative. There are twinned basketball clubs for Arab and Jewish children ages six to15, which offer joint peace education and life skills activities and also afford the opportunity to compete on integrated teams of the Jerusalem Peace League and the Jerusalem Girls Basketball League.

Another project is a leadership development program for outstanding 16-year-old participants. There is also professional development and conflict management training for future basketball coaches, intergroup facilitators, educators, and leaders such as Halid and David.

The costs of the programs are borne by donors including US-AID, Adidas, Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, family foundations, and a grant from the US State Department.

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