Jews, Arabs and the game we play

I’ve never been a huge sports fan.

I’ve never really followed any professional sport. And football? As a Canadian, soccer was never really on anyone’s mind, until of course David Beckham brought it, along with his family, to North America.

What then caused me to watch, scream and shout, jump for joy and cheer on the Wales national team during the 2016 European qualifier in Israel?

Well, it had something to do with the fact that I knew I would be meeting them all the following day in a more important context.

And so, I watched them again, the very next morning, as they got off their bus.

I watched as they slowly strolled, seemingly tired from the previous day’s victory, onto the football pitch in Haifa.

I watched as they crossed the perfectly manicured lawn, exploring the Carmel Mountains on the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west.

And, I watched their eyes light up as they approached our Jewish, Arab and Druze children — all sitting perfectly still, clearly eager and anxious as their heroes finally come to greet them.

With all the anticipation, the hour that Gareth Bale and his team mates spent on the field in Haifa, passing the ball to Arab and Jewish Israeli children, was more than your average kick about.

Gareth Bales, greets fans from the Equalizer programme in Haifa
Gareth Bale greets fans from the Equalizer programme in Haifa

But my heroes are Ori from Shlomi and Hasan from Jedida-Makar. Two boys from the social and geographic periphery of northern Israel.

Both boys clearly earned their spot on the field. Both boys practised soccer regularly, showed great improvement on the field, and just as important, in school, were kind to their friends and helped out at home. Their coaches, teachers, tutors and parents all raved at the progress made since their boys began the Equalizer programme a few months ago.

Jewish and Arab kids on the Equalizer programme meet the Wales national team.
Ori from Shlomi  (in blue) with Jewish and Arab kids on the Equalizer programme
Hasan on the field with the Wales team.
Hasan from Jedeida-Maker on the field with the Wales team

What is Equalizer?

Equalizer is a grassroots programme that brings Arab, Druze and Jewish boys and girls together through football. Sounds simple and in fact, its simplicity is its success. Coexistence, which is the very being of this programme, is rarely mentioned. Instead it just becomes a way of life.

The programme, run with the support of Israel’s Ministry of Education as well as the British Embassy in Israel, provides year-round football-based activities and educational support for hundreds of children (aged 10-12) instilling them with increased sporting, social and educational values.

Up until recently Equalizer primarily operated in central and southern Israel, but now, UK Jewish charity UJIA has helped bring the programme north to the Galil, where the Jewish:Arab ratio is about 50:50.

The encounter between children from different backgrounds and with diverse religious beliefs is challenging and difficult. Sport plays a vital role in energising communities and teaching tolerance, respect, positive modes of behaviour and developing skills such as self-discipline and leadership.

I know that most of these children on the grass rarely get a chance to leave their community or village, let alone leisurely travel to sports events nationally or internationally. Chances are they won’t have the opportunity to travel to Wales any time soon, if at all.

So – you bet I cheered!

Muhammed, from Jedida-Maker, with fellow Equalizer participant Ilay, from Akko, 20 minutes away.
Muhammed (aka Bijou), from Jedida-Maker, with fellow Equalizer participant Ilay, from Akko, 20 minutes away

In fact, I’ve found myself cheering quite a lot recently as I accompanied a film crew, capturing the Equalizer’s new Western Galilee League. Fifteen new teams with over 225 children are now able to meet, play and develop through this programme.

I became quite the busy Soccer – I mean Football – mom!  I watched practices and games, met participants, interviewed teachers and school principals, met with parents and coaches and over-worked Equalizer’s dedicated Northern Regional Manager, Dor Peled, and even its passionate Founder/CEO, Liran Gerassi.

But I would like to think it was all for a good cause (or a short blog!).

Because there is a real story here.  A story that rarely gets told, but needs to get out.

It’s the story of Ilay, a religious Jewish 12 year-old I met at Rambam Primary School in Akko. A sweet, eager, mile-a-minute speaker ready to profess his love of Equalizer, and not just because of the sports. No, he loves his tutor, Shani, who actually makes studying fun during the extra educational support he gets twice a week as part of the programme. Ilay knows that studying goes hand in hand with sports.

It’s the story of Muhammed (nicknamed Bijou), a Muslim 12 year-old boy I met in Jedida-Maker, just 20 minutes east of Akko.  An enthusiastic, focused and slightly shy little star, who dreams about football at night and idolises his coach.  Tima, his high school tutor who volunteers weekly, proudly tells me just how hard Bijou is working on improving his English.  Walking down the halls in his crisp white shirt, with his head held high, Bijou has clearly learned to show respect for others as well as for himself.

Yet, these two boys, like so many others, would have likely never met, were it not for Equalizer.

They would have likely never known that they have more in common than differences.

And they would have likely had no common language at this stage, if it were not for that ball and the Equalizer.

So, after spending time with both boys in their respective communities, just 20 minutes apart, it was very touching for me to see Ilay and Bijou unite together on the field.

Playing, practising and passing the ball as all kids do.

Shaking hands, high-fiving and yes, even embracing.

Bijou from Jedeida-Maker and Ilay from Acco
Bijou from Jedeida-Maker and Ilay from Akko
Me, with Bijou and his team mates at an Equalizer tournament.
The mandatory Selfie: Me, with Bijou and his team mates at an Equalizer tournament
About the Author
Rachel Lasry Zahavi works in Israel for UK Jewish charity UJIA, which supports diverse programmes in the Galilee. She is passionate about the NGO world and her degrees in Anthropology, Emergency and Disaster Management, as well as Informal Education, have somehow become rather handy. Rachel enjoys sharing those stories that are often never told; stories of inspiring people she meets in Israel’s forgotten corners.
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