Building bridges between peoples and cultures of the Middle East differs from cross-cultural conversations in the West. The “great American melting pot” — converting old cultures into new ones with a shared language and identity — remains foreign to the peoples, lands, and cultures in this region.
In Israel — the one Jewish majority state in an Arab majority Middle East — we are confronted with the challenge of reaching out to fellow citizens of other religious, ethnic, and cultural traditions without reflexively trying to mold a common national character. Ironically, meeting and engaging as distinct cultures by day, while returning to our side of the “cultural bridge” at night, underscores understanding, enhances cooperation, and can lead to lifelong friendships.
Since 2020 and the signing of the path breaking Abraham Peace and Normalization Accords, we at the non-profit Israel Tennis and Education Centers (ITEC) have been building bridges to the leaders, families, children, and youth of Israel’s Arab cities and towns, bound by the principles of Middle Eastern honor, friendship, understanding, and cooperation (“Tatbi”).
A dear friend, Khaled Abu Toameh, a wonderful Israeli-Arab journalist and commentator, reminded Ronen and me that Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel bear a mutual responsibility and renewed opportunity to nurture and spread the spirit of Abraham — the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — within the borders of Israel, our shared home, in addition to reaching out to the Arab states.
ITEC’s efforts had received a “kick start” in Dubai in November 2020. One of ITEC’s aspiring women’s champions, Mika Fruchtman-Dagan, today a highly ranked 18-year-old player, was offered a “complimentary wildcard” entry to Dubai’s El Habtoor Women’s Professional Tennis Tournament. This marked the first time an Israeli player had been formally invited to compete by an Arab country. Our Emirati hosts warmly welcomed us as members of the Middle East’s cultural montage. We watched Mika advance three rounds against top world players, with the Israeli flag flying proudly against the Dubai skyline.
Our watershed experience in Dubai invigorated our cross-cultural imaginations. Several months later, in early 2021, we began building bridges at home to the families and children in Israel’s Arab cities and towns. We branded the outreach, “Abraham’s Bridge.” The name was particularly meaningful. It emanated from the above mentioned historic Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, former adversaries that have become partners in peace and normalization.
Now was a watershed moment to bring the spirit of Abraham to Israel’s Arab cities.
ITEC has embraced Israel’s children regardless of ethnic, religious, economic or social background for more than four decades. We have sought to instill the values of tolerance, honor, respect, and kindness. ITEC has enjoyed decades of success in imparting excellence and equality-based tennis education to tens of thousands of young people in and around mixed Jewish-Arab cities such as Jerusalem, Arad, Jaffa, Akko, as well as in the Druze town of Sajur. We have proven the effectiveness of tennis as a social and competitive tool to help Israel’s youth achieve their personal best, champions on and off the court. But we faced both opportunity and obstacles.
It was May 2021. Hamas had launched a rocket war against Israeli cities, inciting violence between Arabs and Jews. Despite the tenuous moment, we invited the mayor of Taibe, Shuaa Masarwa Mansour, and 25 members of the Taibe city council for a VIP morning of tennis and a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast at ITEC headquarters in Ramat Hasharon. It was a tricky time for Jewish-Arab relations. We felt the tension. Many Arab cities in Israel had sympathized with the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza more than they identified with Israel.
We were pleasantly surprised that Mayor Mansour and his senior team responded positively. There is nothing like tennis to break the ice, calm tensions, warm up human connections, and help people bond. Within minutes, we were able to transform the psychological and emotional dynamic. We gathered the group and explained how the power of tennis enhances friendships and creates synergies between people. We explained how the tennis court is far more than a battlefield for a win-lose “war of wills.”
Our message seemed to resonate. Soon, our Taibe tennis partners were laughing, learning, and enjoying. We played mixed doubles, each of us with partners sporting traditional hijabs. We looked at one another across the net saying with our eyes, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Soon after, we travelled to the Arab city of Taibe in north central Israel to launch the Abraham’s Bridge pilot program. The Taibe orphanage cares for children from Arab towns and cities across Israel. Fatma (an alias), the “spiritual mom” of the local orphanage, asked Ronen to give a talk to the teachers and sports education coaches on the power of tennis as an educational tool. Ronen led intensive training sessions with 20 Taibe educators on positive leadership and personal empowerment as core experiences on the tennis court, with Fatma translating every word from Hebrew.
A great energy swept across the room. After the talk, we took to the courts. This would be a dramatic moment for Samira (an alias), a young girl cared for by the orphanage. She had found a soccer ball and kicked it aggressively towards the wall. Ronen approached her with a smile and reflexively she flashed an angry look. He offered a racket, a ball and a personal invitation to practice with him on the mini court a few meters away. She raised her head and, with an uncertain smile, took up Ronen’s offer. Magic. Fifty minutes on the court did the trick. At the end of the practice hour, Ronen called Ahmed, the manager of the orphanage, together with Samira, and complimented the new young tennis “convert” in the presence of her caregiver.
Ronen simply said, “Amazing,” smiling at Samira. Ahmed the manager, shed a small tear. He took Ronen aside and confided that Samira has been living in Taibe’s orphanage for three years, had refused to attend school and acted out violently towards teachers and fellow students. Ahmed leaned in and quietly told Ronen: “A week ago,” he said, “Samira tried to take her own life. But since she found you, Ronen, she has returned to school and is calmer with friends, students and teachers.” Ahmed whispered, “Its a small miracle.”
ITEC Abraham’s Bridge tennis partnerships now include the southern Bedouin city of Rahat. Mayor Sheikh Faiz Shaibun has become a friend and partner, as have scores of Rahat’s children, parents, and teachers. Mayors of other Arab and Druze cities and towns are calling. ITEC’s Abraham’s Bridge initiative has begun to instill a vision, energize a vibrancy and enhance an appetite for excellence among Israel’s Arab youth.
Arabs and Jews in Israel live on different sides of a cultural bridge. ITEC’s excellence based tennis education has helped pave a shared path to the top. In the foreseeable future, Israel may just have its first Wimbledon champion from Taibe.
Israel Tennis and Education Centers is a private non-profit organization funded by private donations and sponsorships that has served hundreds of thousands of Israel’s Children since 1976. Its goal is to transform the lives of children in Israel, the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world.
The above was co-authored by Dan Diker and Ronen Moralli. Dan serves as International Vice Chairman of the Israel Tennis and Education Centers, and has been involved with ITEC since 1977. Ronen is Israel’s Federation Cup Coach, ITEC Head Coach for the Abraham’s Bridge Project and the ITEC’s Tennis lover’s programs. He also serves as ITEC senior coach responsible for coaches’ professional training. He is the recipient of the 2021 President’s Award for Israel’s best sports coach from 2016 to 2021.