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Getting your kicks out of peace

A martial arts program that provides a common passion for Arab and Jewish youth

Driving along the coast on a recent trip up north, the urban terrain revealed the tell-tale signs of the vicious storm which recently battered the country. The sodden, tatty and dog-eared posters which meekly beckoned us to the ballot box, the roads pock-marked with puddles and the limbless trees all bore testimony to the gloomy ordeal which shrouded the region. But, as we chugged behind the convoy of merry-makers making their way up north to marvel at the lush post-storm scenery, the same urban landscape divulged stories of a different nature- it served as a social travelogue of Budo for Peace and of its mushrooming effect on a medley of communities throughout the country.

Budo for Peace (BFP), an educational non-profit organization, couples professional martial arts training with the educational values and ethos inherent to traditional forms of martial arts. It incorporates these values into an innovative and enriching educational framework which aims to connect and empower children relegated to the social periphery, including Arabs, Jews, Druze, Bedouins, Ethiopians and youth at risk. By instilling the impressionable younger generation with ideals of mutual respect and non-violence, BFP equips them with the skills necessary to confront intolerance widespread in society. As they apply the skills learnt on the mat to everyday situations, these youngsters develop into productive members of their communities and mentors for others.

As we slowly snaked our way along the coastline, I proudly adopted the role of BFP tour guide, animatedly describing the human hues which make up the hills, of the youthful silhouettes behind the road signs which dotted our path. The ever-changing, diverse scenery was reflective of the unique cocktail of commonalities and distinctions which characterize our organization. “Looking to your right, you will see Givat Olga where a Krav Maga club was recently opened in conjunction with the “City Without Violence” initiative. As we wind our way through the Wadi, we will come across Ma’ale Iron, the regional council which partnered with us over the holiday season to host the world-renowned Aikido Master, Fukakosa, in a multi-cultural friendship training. Lighting the 8th night Hannuka candles together with Japanese dignitaries in the middle of an Arab village truly expressed the meaning of social harmony. As we continue further north to Haifa, Kiryat Haim, Usefiya, Yarka, El B’Tuf….” The map is peppered with social landmarks which narrate the story of Budo for Peace.

Budo for Peace multi-cultural friendship training with Aikido Master, Fukakosa, over Hannuka
Photo credit: Dorit Fridman

Passing the turn-off to Katzir, home of the Pisgat Amir High School, a “last chance” school for youth at risk, I envisioned BFP Sensei Ben Rosenblum & the band of boisterous young boys who take part in his Kung-Fu class. “When the kids first heard about the new Kung-Fu group, they thought ‘cool, this is a legitimate opportunity to beat each other up!’. Little did they know that we have a completely different agenda in mind.” For these boys, who are laden with mountains of emotional baggage and who show contempt for any authority figure who crosses their path, the road to accepted normative behavior is interspersed with stumbling blocks & road bumps. Their successes and milestones in the social process which Budo for Peace advocates are measured in tentative baby steps.

Peeling away the tough layers of bravado and pride which envelop us all, Ben relived the labor pains which characterized his first encounter with his students. “My first class was an eye-opening experience to say the least,” he confessed. “Some of my colleagues were shocked that I decided to come back to the following lesson. After the introductory demonstration led to a round of teenage taunting and ridicule, I turned around and saw the giant, 1.9 meter kid I was sparring with, charging towards the ring leader with the willpower of an elephant and the strength of four horses. Everything went downhill from there. Suffice it to say that I never expected the lesson to end in a police squad room!”

The incident, which was viewed by many weathered staff members as an everyday occurrence with no injuries, only reinforced Ben’s resolve to implement the Budo for Peace educational program in his dojo (club). He was determined to provide his students with the much needed skills designed to add structure and order to their lives and to encourage them to rekindle their belief not only in those surrounding them but fore-mostly within themselves.

As the school year progresses, their crust of cynicism begins to crumble and the hostile veneer slowly begins to fray. Students, who refused to attend the lesson, now warily stand on the sidelines and observe; others, who would frequently mock and tease for sport, now mimic not their peers, but rather the moves and techniques of their master. These small victories attest to the contribution of Budo for Peace in re-shaping the outlooks and actions of these wayward teens.

Embracing the Budo spirit
Photo credit: Hadas Parush

Had our travels taken us in the opposite direction and had we decided to venture further south, although the landscape, both vegetative and human, would vary, the narrative would remain the same.

The first stop on our itinerary in the quest of Budo for Peace down south would be the El Razi School, an Arabic primary school in the heart of Lod. In a makeshift dojo, which as the teachers remark is the only classroom on campus which is devotedly swept and tidied before each lesson, Sensei Uri Wolff and his pupils prove that sport really is a mutual language which bridges all divides- verbal, cultural and ethnic.

“To be honest, being a Jewish instructor in an all-Arab school, I didn’t know what to expect”, Uri admits. “But one thing was for sure, I knew that it was going to be an interesting and unforgettable experience. In my opinion and experience, you don’t have to speak the same language in order to have fun together. Within the walls of our dojo, it is the language of instruction which draws us together. Not Hebrew, nor Arabic, but rather the neutral and exotic Japanese. I count in Japanese and the kids echo my call, I perform a technique and in unison they mimic my moves. I explain the meaning of the Budo value of respect, in a mixture of pantomime and smatterings of Arabic, and they seem to absorb and understand. It’s quite unbelievable to tell you the truth”.

Bringing communities together
Photo credit: Rinat Halon

Despite the distinct traits which brand the members of Uri’s BFP Karate class, the members are all able to shelve their differences of religion, nationality and class and concentrate on the mutual grounding which connects them- their passion for martial arts. “Whoever chooses to be a part of this wonderful project enjoys every minute of it. And I’m convinced that I enjoy it just as much as they do. You know what,” he adds with a beaming smile, “maybe even a bit more”.

The combination of sports and peace is by no means a novel approach; soccer, surfing, cricket and rugby have all been enlisted to act as outlets for the promotion of peace. However, despite the immense popularity of this duo, Budo for Peace remains distinct in its ability to offer meaningful opportunities for intimate interactions based on mutual interests. The focus of this profound encounter is not confined to an inanimate soccer ball or cricket bat, but rather urges participants to literally and figuratively join hands and unite through touch, eye contact and physical connection.

The travelogue of Budo for Peace is intrinsically intertwined with the stories of the unsung sectors, cities and settlements which comprise the social fabric of Israeli society. It is the story of Abu Kweidar, an unrecognized Bedouin village on the outskirts of bustling Be’er Sheva, of Kiryat Haim & Kiryat Gat where generations of immigrants, from all corners of the globe, enlist to ease the absorption of the newest wave of Ethiopian olim chadshim.

Budo for Peace club for Ethiopian immigrants in Kiryat Haim

Why not venture off the beaten track, rather than cocooning yourselves in familiar surroundings, which tend to sprout preconceived notions and social stereotypes. We invite you to embrace the spirit of Budo and set off on a path which promises intriguing panoramic views of a more inclusive and accepting society. Join us in the journey of Budo for Peace and help us to make a difference in the lives of youngsters throughout the region. We guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride.   

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

About the Author
Hayley Lipshitz, born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, is the Development Coordinator of Budo for Peace. Her dual degree in Communications, Sociology & Anthropology from Tel Aviv University complements her work and interest in the fields of multiculturalism and social development.