Headlines from the Middle East rarely feature what I believe to be one of the most important stories around: the fight for peace and harmony in a region fraught with tensions. Although this fight involves Arabs and Jews, both in Israel and across the region, sadly, it is not the coexistence successes that draw international attention, let alone major headlines, but instead only the violence and failures.
I am now blogging from the quiet of the Negev desert, watching the glowing embers of a campfire. No wireless connection, no cell phone. Switched off from our world but switched on to another reality, one where all the senses are reset and a sharpened awareness of the basics and priorities of life sets in. I am sitting with international martial arts masters from Jordan, Japan, Senegal, and Israel and with the local Bedouin karate club. After two exhausting days of sweating and sharing both graceful movements and brutal techniques used for self-defense and confidence building between people, I see that we can win the battle for the hearts and minds of Arab, Christian, Muslim and Jewish children living in this conflict zone.
I founded Budo for Peace 12 years ago as an educational organization that promotes values such as respect, integrity, self-discipline and harmony through special educational programs and martial arts training. Today, more than 500 children take part through our affiliate clubs across the country, many of which come from the geographic and social periphery. Through our work and through our Friendship Trainings, like the one this past week, we break down ignorance and fear and build bridges between people and communities.
Despite the plethora of discouraging headlines from our region, I’m not alone in fighting for an alternative reality. Through my work with Budo for Peace, I feel more optimistic than ever that we can win this battle — if we all join forces.
My optimism grew this week as more than 300 children and adults came together for our annual Friendship Training Session held on the beaches of Herzliya and supported by the Herzliya municipality. Decked in crisp white suits and a wide range of colorful belts, enthusiastic children from Abu Kwedar to Raanana; from Yokneam to Baqa al-Gharbiyye; and from Jisr az-Zarqa to Kiryat Gat, learned new techniques and showcased their skills with confidence and pride.
This small strip of the Mediterranean coast transformed into an arena of coexistence, hope and an enormous amount of fun. In a region fraught with discord, Budo for Peace’s goal is to be an innovator of coexistence, bringing diverse cultural, ethnic, social economic and religious groups in Israel and the Middle East together in a spirit of tolerance and trust building.
With 40 years of martial arts training in my birthplace Australia, and learning under some of the most respected Senseis (teachers) in Japan, I was exposed to the important role that martial arts, in existence for thousands of years and created to ensure stable and safe societies, can have on building bridges.
So why not put it to use in one of the regions that need it most, the Middle East?
I’m proud that our annual event drew martial arts enthusiasts of all ages and religions: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins.
With the stunning Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop, beachside sessions were conducted for children and adults by a delegation of world-renowned martial arts experts from Japan, Jordan, Senegal and Israel for beginners and for advanced martial arts practitioners alike. We had sessions conducted by a Senegalese Taekwondo Olympian, a Japanese master from the Japan Karate Association and a number of Israeli and Jordanian teachers from different styles of martial arts. (Unfortunately, due to technical travel difficulties, the president of Jordan’s Martial Arts Federation for World Peace and former instructor to the Dubai police and the Royal Family of Dubai, could not attend in person this year as he did last year.)
Japan’s ambassador, Koji Tomita, joined us as well and shared with the crowd that:
“Budo is not just about being strong and defeating your enemies. It’s not just about the techniques. It is a code of conduct and a way of life. Key to this way of life is self-discipline, courtesy and compassion for others. So it is entirely appropriate that Budo for Peace is empowering young people and promote mutual understanding between people through Budo.”
Also in attendance were partner organizations that focus on building bridges in the region through sports and recreation. Participating organizations include organizations from Football, Basketball, Squash , Tennis, Frisbee and Kayaking.
Now, in the unrecognized village of Abu Kwedar, the moon sheds light across our desert dojo, and I see the Bedouin tents and corrugated iron huts in the distance. Our stay here, and the entire week of practice, show that the mission of Budo for Peace and other sport and peace organizations can offer the strength and resilience needed to cultivate friendships. The millions of stars above us that witness the fighting in our region are also observing the connections and positive energy created tonight between people.
If only the media and world could see and focus on us, people from countries that seem unrelated – Jordan, Japan, Senegal, Israel and Australia — and children from different ethnic and religious backgrounds — Orthodox and liberal Jews, secular Arabs, Muslims, Christians Druze, Bedouin, Ethiopians and Russians, all creating deep bonds between kindred spirits.
Imagine what a powerful community we would have if all organizations united and elevated the scale of these events, millions of people dedicated to fighting for peace and harmony in our region could succeed.
But is this really a story worth hearing about?
You tell me!
I don’t think the media will.