An Israeli and Palestinian Australian Rules Football Peace Team is heading to Croatia for the AFL Europe Euro Cup in October.

Last Friday, six teams fought out the first AFL nine-a-side Football Tournament ever held in Tel Aviv. The Eucalyptus trees along the Yarkon River in north Tel Aviv conjured Melbourne, where the Yarra River runs past the city’s Cricket Ground (the home of Australian sport and the Pantheon of Australian Rules Football). The Tournament was named after the late Henry Jolson, a passionate, loving and gentle man who believed in coexistence and equality without exception. As a young man Henry was a fantastic footballer and, in his later years, a tireless ambassador for the Peace team.

The six participating teams included a Jerusalem team, a Tel Aviv team, three teams of young Australians on Israel programs and the current Jerusalem Peace Team. The Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma opened the Tournament and played for the Jerusalem team. On the day, the IBC team defeated the Bnei Akiva team in the Grand Final with the Jerusalem Peace Team scoring one victory against the Jerusalem ex-pat team. The true purpose of the tournament was to help prepare the Jerusalem Peace Team for the upcoming European Championship.

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Jerusalem Peace Team manager Yonatan Belik with the Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma (Photo: supplied)

The Jerusalem Peace Team is the initiative of Yonatan Belik, a twenty-five year-old student from Jerusalem who played for two previous Peace Teams in 2008 and 2011. Yonatan loves the game and has been involved in Seeds of Peace, an organization that helps bring kids from conflict regions to summer camps and helps them learn to live together often using team sports to help them bond. Together with other Israeli and Palestinian students from Jerusalem, Yonatan launched the current AFL Peace Team despite unusually high recent tensions in the city. The Team has received some financial support from the AFL in Australia and Australian Jews who supported the previous Peace Teams. In the past the Pratt Family supported the team. Today, AFL legend Robert DiPierdomenico is a great advocate for the Team Down Under, with support from Tanya Oziel in Sydney and David Miller in Melbourne.

“We want to show that there is another way,” said one twenty-two year-old student from East Jerusalem. With one eye focused on the game in progress, his words reflected the optimism he felt at being a member of the AFL Peace Team, consisting of players from East and West Jerusalem. A fellow teammate from West Jerusalem affirmed his friend’s words. Both spoke of the success of the training camp the previous day, with workshops by Seeds of Peace facilitators, emphasizing teamwork, communication and trust, as well as the importance of sharing expectations, feelings and fears. The Palestinian and Israeli facilitators also held a dialogue session, enabling players to share and air their feelings.

One Palestinian player said that he feared for his life walking the streets of West Jerusalem. Another shared his experiences of continuous questioning and searches each time he entered Jewish shops or malls. A Jewish player questioned the Palestinian lack of compromise and reversion to violence. Another Palestinian studying in Jerusalem, feels that peace is feasible, and said that he can’t wait to be with his teammates each week. Overall, the players believe that the camp created a stronger bond between them, a bond that would help them both on and off the field.

The Jerusalem Peace team (Photo: supplied)

The Jerusalem Peace team (Photo: supplied)

The coach of the team is Simon Fink, who played for the Melbourne club AJAX over thirty years ago, and who now lives in Israel. He is incredibly proud of the Team’s results in the Tournament given that most of the team members had never played a real game before. He is confident that they will continue to improve before Croatia. Fink believes that playing and winning a game of Australian Rules Football is similar to advancing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and co-operation. Both require focusing on solutions. “If you’re not part of the solution”, says Fink, “then you are part of the problem. The Team is pragmatic. We want to win games and advance Israeli Palestinian dialogue and cooperation. This is a win-win all around. Teams that fight, blame and criticize each other don’t win games and that is true of peace making as well.” As a parent he prescribes the Rabin approach and tries to teach his kids to fight for peace as hard as they have been taught to fight to win wars.

So why do Australian Jews love Football, Israel and Co-existence Initiatives so much? In Australia everyone loves the Peace Team. Usually, the community speaks with a singular pro-Israel voice. Australia has a long history of trying to engender a multi-cultural society. Sports are often used to break down religious and ethnic differences that in the old country often erupted into discrimination and violence. If Greeks and Turks, and Protestants and Catholics can learn to play and live together, then why not Palestinians and Israelis?

Speaking at the opening of the tournament, before playing for the Jerusalem Team, the Australian Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, said: “What the Peace Team is doing is inspiring. In these times it’s courageous to stand up for peace. The past and present Peace Team members are a motivation to us all.” He continued: “Australians love sport especially, AFL football. For us it’s more than a game – it’s a way of life. AFL football reflects the great Australian values of fair play, respect for others, teamwork, mateship and leadership. These values help create united teams and more harmonious societies.”

This post was written with the assistance of Peace Team manager Yonatan Belik, coach Simon Fink and the Australian Embassy in Tel-Aviv.