“I hate all Arabs!”

“All Arabs are bad! They’ll probably stab us!”

Surprisingly, these stinging slurs were not hurled at their victims from the stands of the Teddy Stadium by rabid Beitar fans poisoned by prejudice and preconceptions. Rather, they were voiced in quivering tones by a group of edgy Ethiopian youngsters in an attempt to mask their mounting anxiety and apprehension upon visiting the Arab village of Jisr A-Zarka for a Budo for Peace-organized joint martial arts training session.

The recent mixed training session between three Budo for Peace (BFP) martial arts clubs offered a microcosmic glimpse into the blinkered psyche of Israeli society and perhaps provides a possible remedy to relieve the prejudice which plagues our communities.

The truth is, we give ourselves far too much credit. Israeli society, at the heart of the 21st century, is not nearly as enlightened and free-thinking as we choose to believe.

Day in and day out, our newspapers and TV screens are defaced by countless accounts of baseless animosity and hatred and are vandalized by endless examples of our collective inability to accept those different from ourselves. In Emmanuel, Sephardi school girls are shunned due to the ancestry of their forefathers. In south Tel Aviv, angry mobs (minus the pitchforks and torches, of course) brand the entire Sudanese community as a syndicate of rapists and thieves. And, most recently, the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem pulsated with rage and resentment, damning obscenities and offenses rippling through its stands, at the blasphemy of allowing two Muslim players to represent the Beitar fans on their sacred field.

Although the characters in this ongoing social saga may vary, the plot remains the same. Rather than enjoying the rich social buffet Israeli society has to offer, fused with cultural aromas and ethnic flavors, we are sustained by a staple diet of sectorial typecasts and prototypes.

In the face of this warped reality, which conditions us to view our neighbors through a veil of suspicion, it is no wonder that none of us are immune to common stereotypes which mold our perceptions of society. So much so that the piercing insults of the children on the way to the meeting should not be so unexpected.

The unlikely encounter between the Jewish Ethiopian students from Haifa and Kiryat Haim, where the two BFP clubs are run in conjunction with the Haifa Municipality’s “Shiluvim Project”, and the Arab pupils from the Arab coastal village of Jisr A-Zarka, neighboring Caesarea, was a form of uncharted territory for all those present. To be completely honest, no-one quite knew how to anticipate the children’s reactions to their peers.

The distinctions between the two groups were palpably obvious. “There’s no way that we’re going to confuse who’s who”, Abed El-Karim, the Arab instructor, said in jest.

Breaking the ice: BFP Instructors Abed El-Karim (left) & Baruch Frank (right) with their clubs at the meeting in Jisr A-Zarka

On one side of the room the hosting youth from Jisr, dressed in striking black gi (suits) which accented their green and yellow belts, awkwardly appraised their guests from the entrance of their dojo (club). Across the hall, the Ethiopian visitors, bleached white from head to toe in their pristine white gi and starched white belts, huddled together. Their feelings of insecurity and fears for the worst quickly gave way to fascination, mixed with a twinge of envy, at the multicolored belts around the waists of their hosts. “Maybe they’re not one of the bad Arabs,” one Ethiopian Karateka whispered to her friend in hushed undertones, “They like Karate too”.

Determined to bridge the divide separating the two groups, Abed strode over to the cluster of white suits with open arms, inviting everyone to step onto familiar and common ground- the tatami mats of the dojo. As Abed escorted his shuffling charges into his club, filling the silences with animated small talk, an additional, somewhat poetic, commonality came to light- both share the word “Salaam”, the word for peace in both Arabic and Amharic. This revelation was the spark needed to thaw the frosty barriers which segmented the two contrasting groups.

With the help of gentle coaxing by the instructors, who explained that the only true difference between them was the “colors of their suits”, the make-up of the room quickly evolved from polka dot-style constellations of black and white into an intermingled checkerboard. Before long, youthful giggles of delight and enthusiastic, accented renditions of “Shu Ismak” (what is your name in Arabic) reverberated from the walls of the dojo.

Creating a social checkerboard: Getting to know each other

By relieving themselves of the social labels which necklace us all and suffocate the chances of acceptance and inclusion, the children defied their differences of language, culture and mindset. The fears and concerns, which shrouded their some-what tense reception, evaporated as the traditional Japanese commands rolled off their tongues in a symphony of muddled accents and they all began to perform the familiar exercises in synchronized, fluid movements.  As always, the innovative educational program unique to Budo for Peace was a focal feature in all of the activities. “Harmony”, one of the nine core values of the organization, was chosen as the theme of the event and was gently massaged into all of the training exercises and games.

Learning the meaning of “Harmony” together

By the end of the meeting, when the Budo for Peace instructors tried to gauge their students’ revised assessment of their fellow Karate-loving counterparts, the depth of their previous preconceptions rose to the surface. “I never knew that Ethiopians lived anywhere other than Be’er Sheva”, Mustafa said, causing the Haifa natives to erupt with laughter. For most of the participants, this unique encounter was their first contact with members of the opposite community. To them Kiryat Haim, or alternately Jisr A-Zarka, might as well have been Mumbai, Madrid or Mars for that matter. Their only views of these places and of their inhabitants had been received through filtered narratives and recycled reports from second-hand sources.

We know that eroding the deep-rooted discriminations, tainted judgments and bigoted beliefs characteristic of our insular communities is a challenging and perhaps insurmountable feat. However, we do not wish to don rose-colored glasses and punt beauty pageant slogans and promises of “world peace”. Rather, we hope to fracture the fortified layers of skepticism and suspicion which tarnish our social interactions by means of bringing shared interests and mutual passions to the forefront of our encounters.

As Bradley Burston wrote in a recent article in the Ha’aretz newspaper on this subject, “Yes, hatred begins at home. But so does hope”. By confronting and challenging the socially contrived pigeonholes of class, race and ethnicity and their accompanying connotations, we, at Budo for Peace, hope to sow the seeds of hope needed to trigger a collective wake-up call so that we can all look in the mirror and see not the social tattoos branded to our foreheads, but an individual standing before us.

On Tuesday, 5 March 2013, coinciding with national “Good Deeds Day”, Budo for Peace will be holding the first Regional Event of the year for all of its clubs south of Tel Aviv. The participants of the event come from a wide range of demographic backgrounds, including Bedouins, Jews, Arabs and Ethiopians. This moving multi-ethnic encounter is a further demonstration of our commitment to empower at risk youth and marginalized communities and reinforces our mission to promote the values of tolerance and social inclusion.

To find out more about our organization, activities and volunteer opportunities please contact us at hayley@budoforpeace.org or visit our website at www.budoforpeace.org