This summer, as the FIFA World Cup is underway in Russia, the historic gates of Jerusalem’s Old City will transform into a goalpost as Jews and Arabs join together for a special soccer event.

The gathering is set to bring some 200 young players from the eastern and western sides of Jerusalem to compete in a penalty shootout against world-famous goalies, the event organizers say.

“Everyone loves soccer no matter who they are or where they’re from. In a lot of senses, it epitomizes the vision that culture has an important role in bringing people together,” said Zaki Djemal, one of the founders of Kulna Yerushalayim (We Are All Jerusalem), the nonprofit organization hosting the event. “There’s a lot of culture that we all share and have in common. Instead of celebrating that culture separately, we can do it together.”

The event, to take place during the World Cup’s semi-final games on July 10-11, will include live music, sports legends and screenings of the matches on the ancient walls surrounding the Old City in addition to the penalty-kick competition.

In order to generate excitement, the organization is aiming to bring famous goalies from some of the world’s best teams to participate alongside the Jewish and Arab youth. While there have been no formal commitments yet, Djemal said they are focusing on getting the attention of Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, Germany’s Oliver Kahn, France’s Fabian Barthez, Spain’s Iker Casillas, and Denmark’s Peter Schmeichel.

“We could approach people directly but we like to position the effort as coming from the ground up,” said 30-year-old Djemal, also the cofounder and managing partner of fresh.fund, the first student-run venture capital fund in Israel.

Kulna Yerushalayim’s website for the initiative, dubbed “Goals and Gates,” calls on Jerusalem residents and soccer fans to help get the attention of these soccer stars and bring them to Jerusalem.

Just a week after launching the website, Djemal said news of the event had already reached Europe, with social media posts and a mention on the radio in Italy.

Djemal, a Harvard graduate born in London and raised in Jerusalem, explained that if the organization doesn’t succeed in getting one of the legendary goalies to participate, the games will still go on.

“We have a bunch of Israeli goalies who are interested as well. Itzik Kornfein, who is one of the most legendary Israeli goalies and is now in charge of sports in the Jerusalem Municipality, has been a supporter of our project and he’s happy to help,” said Djemal.

Breaking down barriers

This is not the first time Djemal and the Kulna Yerushalayim founders have attempted to break down barriers with cultural activities.

Beginning by bringing Jews and Arabs together using a shared love of Middle Eastern music, the organization then launched a project named Jerusalem Double in 2016, which shifted the focus to the classic Mideast board game, backgammon.

Their first backgammon tournament, hosted in Beit Hanina, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, brought 150 people together. In one year of operations, Jerusalem Double engaged 1,000 backgammon players and over 4,000 other participants from across the Jerusalem Jewish-Arab divide.

Jerusalem Double tournament at Machane Yehuda market, Jerusalem. Photo: courtesy

Since then, tournaments have been held in more than 12 Jewish and Arab areas of Jerusalem, creating crossover between neighborhoods that are usually segregated.

Djemal explains that the broader strategy is to influence change in Jerusalem, specifically relating to a more equitable distribution of municipal resources between the two sides of the city.

After former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch, now running for mayor of the city, attended a Jerusalem Double backgammon tournament, he worked alongside the organization to help create solutions for the lack of parking available during Muslim prayer times.

“The backgammon was a foot in the door. It was an invitation, a tactic to engage with this type of audience, and from that we’re also able to surface a lot of other issues and see real change across the board by all populations,” Djemal explained.

Part of the goal of Kulna Yerushalayim is to encourage encounters between Jerusalemites in different locations around the Old City, where they may not have previously visited due to fear or stigma, the organization said.

Tourists walk towards the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo by Hadas Parush/FLASH90

The latest project, Goals and Gates, will test the waters to see how a shared love of sports and the World Cup can create a feeling of connection, understanding and empathy between Arab and Jewish Jerusalemites.

 “I think that if we figure out Jerusalem, we can figure out the entire region,” says Djemal.