Six-year-old Jewish and Arab boys and girls – members of PeacePlayers International – practiced on the basketball court of Keshet School in Jerusalem, followed the instructions of the coaches, given in Hebrew and Arabic, and looked no different from any other group of children playing together.
In 2001, two American brothers named Sean and Brendan Tuohey established the organization PeacePlayers International, whose headquarters are located in Washington, D.C., which aims to unite communities with the help of the game of basketball. The rationale: “Children who play together can learn to live together.”
The organization is funded by donations and operates branches in conflict areas: South Africa, Cyprus and Northern Ireland. Until now, 52,000 children have taken part in the project. In our area, the project is in operation since 2005, with a focus on Jerusalem, Jaffa, Mateh Yehudah and in the Palestinian Authority. Thus far, 5,500 children from Israel and the PA have participated. Children begin playing at age the age of six and can continue until the age of 18. Twice a week, these young people practice in their own communities, and twice a month they meet for joint practices.
Karen Doubilet, a doctoral candidate in the Conflict Resolution program at Bar-Ilan University who specializes in Arab-Jewish relations, manages the operations of PeacePlayers in Israel. In the past, she has worked at the Peres Center for Peace. She states that the current undertaking is very successful, and a survey of participants showed a significant change in the attitudes of the children:
“There are fewer prejudices and more willingness for closeness with the other side.”
The team of six-year-olds, children in first grade, constitutes the first attempt to put together such a young team, and Doubilet says that the potential to see them play together for many years is very exciting. On the team there are younger siblings of older participants. They are now meeting for the third time, “and you can see that there is a connection between the children, and when you have a mixed group, you can’t tell the difference between them anymore. The language barrier doesn’t restrict them from playing together.”
Trust, she explains, was built gradually, and in the beginning it was necessary to deal with the opposition of the parents. “But anyone who knows us,” she adds, “likes what we’re doing and supports us.”
In the meantime, on the court the coaches are continuing with warm-up games. The assistant coach, an older Arab participant, helps the children and relays that she’s already in the program for five years.
“The younger children [from my community] want very much to come play with Jews,” she says. “My parents also want me to be with Jewish people and they support me.”
Thank you to the Bellacita Foundation and the Jerusalem Foundation for supporting these teams.