Danny Hakim

WAR and SPORT: Lighting the road to recovery

Illustration Jordan Polevoy. (Courtesy)
Youth evacuees participating in the Resilience Sport Rescue Pilot Program. (Illustrative)

On October 6, I drafted a blog titled “Peace and Sport: A New Road Taken.” It was about my excitement to participate in the first Middle East Peace and Sport Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on October 18. I was privileged to be part of the first Israeli delegation.  I decided to wait a day to upload the blog after celebrating Simcha Torah – the day the Jewish people received the 10 commandments.

But that one day in the Holy Land turned the world upside down of biblical proportions.

The Inception of 3 Dimensional Wars

On October 7, in reality, not one but many wars erupted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These can be categorized into three distinct wars: the physical war, the media war, and the war on mental health. Each unfolds in a unique sphere, engaging distinct “armies” against different adversaries.

The Three Wars

The Physical War
When Hamas initiated this war through heinous acts, including the massacre of 1,200 Israeli citizens and the kidnapping of 240 hostages, the repercussions were immediate and heartbreaking. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded by mobilizing 360,000 troops along Israel’s borders, bracing for potential escalation involving Iranian proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Syria. This conflict, rife with complexities, has the potential to significantly affect the Middle East and resonate with far-reaching economic and geopolitical impacts worldwide.

The Media War – From the Digital Battlefield to the Streets
As the echoes of the physical conflict resonate, we find ourselves transitioning into a battle that transcends geographical boundaries around the world. In this war, the anti-Israel sentiment, visible in global riots and on campuses, awakens deep-seated antisemitic elements. The conflict, often simplified in media narratives, depicts Hamas as an underdog and Israel as a colonial oppressor. The reality, however, is entangled in complexities, with Hamas’s actions paralleling those of groups like ISIS, while Israel stands in defense against an organization bent on its destruction.

The Mental Health War – The Silent Battle Within
Amidst the turmoil of physical and digital conflicts, a more insidious war brews – one that is often overshadowed but is equally harrowing. This war on mental health fought in the minds, hearts, and souls of Israelis and Palestinians, deeply impacts the social fabric of their respective societies. The goal of winning this war is to mitigate long-term mental illness caused by trauma, a challenge that can span generations.

Psychological Impact, Somatic Healing, and Building Resilience
While the world focuses on displaced Gazans, it should be noted that within Israel, the conflict has also led to widespread displacement. Approximately 100,000 youth aged 6-18 have been uprooted, facing a gamut of challenges from educational disruptions to financial hardships, deepening the at-risk community.

The psychological trauma includes witnessing unimaginable horrors, coping with loss, empathy with the kidnapped hostages, and the arduous journey of rehabilitation. Trauma victims often endure prolonged fear, triggering fight-or-flight responses with long-lasting mental health impacts.

A recent study conducted by Haifa University, the Shalvata Mental Health Center, and Columbia University showed that one in three Israelis exhibited PTSD symptoms a month after the Hamas deadly attack.

Dr. Ariel Kor, founder and chairman of the Israel Center on Addiction and Mental Health said that approximately 75% of mental health problems are initiated before 24 years old.

Many evacuated children, particularly those from kibbutzim, and border towns face trauma. They are cramped in hotel rooms with their parents, siblings, and pets with limited physical activity and few opportunities to let out their frustration.

In response, somatic therapy, which delves into the body’s expression of trauma, offers an early intervention path to recovery that can effectively prevent long-term PTSD. Breathing exercises, movement, and mindfulness techniques are employed to calm the stressed nervous system, fostering resilience.

Recovery varies significantly, often marked by a journey through community support, trauma therapy, and, for some, a grueling battle against lasting trauma and suicide.

Emotionaid, an international organization that specializes in trauma therapy teaches a basic 5 five-step method for self-regulation that can easily be taught to children, teenagers, and adults to support their capacity to handle stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and any symptoms resulting from traumatic experiences.

“The repercussions of this mental health crisis will linger for at least 15 years,” predicts Dr Cathy Lawli, CEO of EmotionAid. This projection marks the beginning of a profound and enduring challenge.

Youth evacuees from Kibbutz Alumim participating in the Resilience Sports Rescue Pilot Program. (Photo: Jordan Polevoy)

Initiatives, collaboration, and challenges

Recognizing the need for somatic healing within organized sporting activities, the Sport for Social Impact Coalition sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation has mobilized its members to fill the void. The coalition consists of 25 organizations in 380 locations in Israel.

With the help of Emotionaid, a unique Sports Resilience Program has been developed for sports coaches to implement trauma-informed techniques during their sports activities. The 8-hour course is built on the 5-step method for managing emotions and reactions during times of stress or crisis.

Since October 7, many sports organizations have taken the initiative to pivot their regular activities to focus on resilience-building for the traumatized communities that were evacuated. From day one, Maccabi World Union opened its doors to their Kfar Maccabiah hotel complex, hosting 800 evacuees from Sderot, Netivot, Ashkelon, and smaller Gaza border communities while offering full board accommodation, kindergartens, and full-day programming for youth and parents.

Israeli President Itzhak Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog, with Danny Hakim at Kfar Maccabiah, visiting evacuees from Gaza border communities.

Other sports organizations using soccer, basketball, and surfing have adapted their regular programs to focus on building resilience in the multiple locations where the evacuees are being lodged, targeting children and youth aged 6-18. Notable examples are The Equalizer and Hechalutz who are collectively managing 69 groups in 23 locations and impacting over 900 evacuees every week. Some organizations that combine sport with the therapeutic nature of the sea are Hagal Sheli (My Wave), Ziv Neurim, and The Israel Lifesaving Federation.    Haredi Leketzev, an ultra-orthodox sports organization, is teaching the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira and hip-hop to over 500 religious and irreligious trauma victims every week.

i24 News: Young Israelis use surfing to combat trauma from Oct. 7

One of the major problems for evacuated teens is that they have been displaced in different areas of the country, away from their classmates thereby disrupting their natural support system. Teens depend on their friends and the separation has compounded their depression causing them to have little motivation to attend school or other activities. A demand for overnight retreats with former cohorts is critical for their recovery. Filling this gap is the Summer Camps Israel organization which coordinates 3-day retreats for youth all over Israel. With the support of the Goodman and Azrieli Foundation, and the Jewish Federations of North America ( JFNA), thousands of youth will benefit from these “Booster” camps designed to build support and resilience.

JFN members and staff visiting 3-day retreats for evacuees

Bringing it All Together: Collaboration for a Cause

A recent meeting at the Knesset, championed by Simon Davidson MK, involving the Ministry of Sport, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of the Negev and Galil, sports federations, and members of the Sports for Social Change Coalition, highlighted these efforts and discussed further strategies to support those affected by the conflict.

A mapping of the displaced youth, in over 50 different locations is being compiled. Many of the youth from the Gaza envelope are staying in temporary lodgings in Eilat, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and central Israel without facilities for regular schooling or after-school activities. Without regular schooling or sports programs, there is a growing fear that the youth will develop long-term mental health issues and become at-risk youth. Collaboration between the regional councils, government ministries, the Azrieli Foundation, and the Sport for Social Change coalition is ongoing to prevent this on a large scale.

Sport can provide the healing power that sheds light on the dark road to recovery. 

About the Author
Danny Hakim OAM is a 2 times world karate silver medalist and holds a 7th-degree black belt from Japan. He is the founder of Budo for Peace and chairman of Sport for Social Change. He is a board member of The Azrieli foundation, MWU ( Maccabi World Union), ALLMEP (the Alliance of Middle East peace), and Kids Kicking Cancer. In 2017 he was inducted into the Australian Maccabi Hall of Fame, and in 2019 was the recipient of the Bonei Zion award for Culture, Art, and Sport. In January 2022, he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for service to the international community.
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