It sounds a bit anti-intuitive, but to hear Dr. William Shahade tell it, one of Israel’s most important peacemaking organizations centers on an ancient art of war.

Among the Israel Boxing Association’s (IBA) 1,800 active members are teens and young adults, male and female, from Arab villages and inner city neighborhoods populated by Russian and Ethiopian immigrants.

“And in 20 years of my experience in running Israel’s boxing league, I have never seen any ethnic, racial, or religious tension among our kids. Education for co-existence is at least as important, if not more important, than training fighters, as far as we’re concerned,” says Shahade, the IBA’s chairman.

The IBA is a great example of how a diverse society can handle potentially explosive social issues.

Boxing has traditionally been a vehicle for poor kids to raise their social status, with the best and toughest joining the ranks of world champions. But in Israel, boxing isn’t just a sport; it’s an educational experience, one that enables youths to overcome ingrained suspicions and prejudice, working together and respecting each other as they labor towards a common goal – bringing home a medal or a belt for the glory of their country, and perhaps building a career for themselves as well.

The IBA has certified gyms located in most of Israel’s larger towns. There, boxers as young as 11 train and participate in matches organized by the group.

Champions for Europe and the Olympics

There are annual championships for the various ages and weight classes, with the top contenders in each category sent out to represent Israel in international matches and competitions.

The IBA is a member of the European Boxing Union, and Israeli representatives compete for medals in European championships; Roman Greenberg, currently the International Boxing Organization’s Intercontinental heavyweight champion, was raised in the IBA, winning his first prize in 1997 – a silver medal – at age 15, at the European junior boxing championship.

The IBA also provides Israel with its Olympic boxers. Israel’s current heavyweight champion, Yussef Abdul Ranney from Haifa, missed qualifying for the 2008 Olympics by just a couple of points (the last Israel Olympic boxer was Vacislav Neiman, who participated in the 1996 games).

So far, Ranney is Israel’s most likely candidate for the 2012 London games, says Shahade. Before that, though, there is this year’s World Boxing Championship in Milan, where Ranney and several other Israelis in various classes will be competing, he tells ISRAEL21c.

While most of the IBA’s fighters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, or residents of Arab villages and towns, they’re all Israelis – and once they put on their trunks and enter the ring, there is no question in their minds about who they’re fighting for.

Once they enter the ring, they’re all Israeli

“Once they get off a plane and enter a ring in a foreign country, it doesn’t matter who they are; as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they’re Israeli,” says Shahade.

Not long ago, Ranney was scheduled to fight against an Iranian fighter at a match in Turkey. “The Iranian refused to get into the ring, and it didn’t matter to him that Ranney’s father is Muslim and his mother is Christian. For Iran, and for everyone else, Ranney is Israeli, as are all the other boxers we sponsor,” says Shahade.

While the kids who join the IBA’s activities are motivated to compete, the organization does do everything it can to ensure that the ethnic and religious tensions that could pop up are dealt with properly.

The IBA’s main training center is in the Arab Galilee village of Kfar Yassif, where Shahade himself lives. “We run summer and vacation training camps here, where participants eat, work out, and spar together,” he says. “Sometimes the Jewish kids are nervous about coming to an Arab village, but once they arrive they realize that it’s no different than any other place in the country.”

Another reason for the IBA’s location is the fact that the village provides some much-needed help to the woefully underfunded organization – exempting the training center from municipal taxes, and even supplying it with electricity at town expense.

Israel’s new Rocky

Despite the efforts the IBA puts into coexistence, Shahade says it’s impossible for participants to completely ignore the political and security situation. “Obviously things would be better for everyone if there was peace – the current situation isn’t good for anyone,” he says.

Recently, he adds, the IBA was forced to cancel a major event that had been set to take place in Um el-Faham. “Unfortunately, because of the tensions there recently, most of the Jewish participants said they were afraid to come, so we had to move the matches. I can’t say I blame them, but it’s still a shame,” says Shahade.

So, what are Israel’s prospects in the boxing arena? Is there an Israeli “Rocky” out there? Surprisingly, says Shahade, there is – and his name is Dan Aharonov, a 16-year-old from Bat Yam.

“He really has what it takes,” says Shahade. “Watching Dan fight evokes memories of past champions. We expect big things from him.”

Meanwhile, Shahade and the IBA continue their work with Israel’s young boxers. As a veteran sports organizer, Shahade says that promoting sportsmanlike behavior is among the most important principles he tries to teach – along with promoting good relations between all segments of Israeli society.

“For me, promoting coexistence is the most important thing,” says Shahade. “I’ve been doing this for many years, and throughout my career I’ve tried to teach the kids the importance of respecting their nation. Judging by the results, we at the IBA have been successful – and we’re proud of our work.”

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