Coaching for Peace

Rebecca and her All-Stars team are all smiles ahead of a big game

Rebecca and her All-Stars team are all smiles ahead of a big game

Today’s blog post was written by Rebecca Ross, a professional American-born basketball player who as a child moved with her family to Israel. For the past year, she has coached a PeacePlayers All-Star team, which competed in the Israel Basketball Association’s elite league.

In the summer of 1997, when I was 8, my family moved from Miami to Givat Ze’ev, a large West Bank settlement northwest of Jerusalem. Part of my acculturation process involved learning to hate Arabs and to hate Arabic. This past year, as coach of Jerusalem’s all-star 9th-10th grade girl’s basketball team (a team in the Peace Players project), I have learned to love Arabs and to love Arabic.

My six secondary school years in Jerusalem largely coincided with the Second Intifada. That is, the period in my life when I spent the most time on buses (as many as 6 a day because of my own basketball practice) and was also the period when many of those buses were attacked. I woke up every day fearing that a suicide bomber would decide to explode himself on my bus on my way to school. I used to see every Arab on the street as a terrorist; I was suspicious of all Arabs — men, women, and even children. When the mother of one of my high school classmates was killed in a suicide bomb attack, I was traumatized. I grew up convinced that Arabs were our enemy and that they were malicious, horrible people who just wanted to kill all the Jews.

Late last August, I moved back to Jerusalem to play on the city’s professional women’s team.  My basketball career has always included coaching as well as playing, and so I accepted a position to coach the 9th-10th grade girl’s team that is part of the same club as my professional team. I had heard that the girls team had Arabs on it, but that fact didn’t really register with me until my first practices with the team when I heard the Arab girls speaking Arabic with each other. I was filled with a visceral revulsion. The sound of Arabic just drove me crazy and brought me back to the trauma of my youth. But from practice to practice and without even noticing it, I found myself thinking a lot about my Arab players. Because they are simply great girls. Girls who just want to play ball and have a fair shot at success in life, and yet who were born in a very complicated place that doesn’t see them as human beings and that doesn’t give them a real chance to succeed.

The integrity of our team was tested on November 18, when early in the morning four people were killed in a terror attack at a synagogue about an 8-minute drive from the gym where we practice. As a religious Jew, I was shocked and hurt when I first heard about the attack, but when I showed up to practice later that day, everything was normal. By then, everyone knew all of the details of what had happened, but I didn’t mention the attack — I decided to leave all of the politics off the court. The girls practiced normally; they smiled and enjoyed as usual. After that practice I understood that even though we live in “war,” we can still make a difference through the small things.

Peace is a very big word, but I believe that until we have Peace, we need to learn how to live together and get along. When I see my young Arab players get along so well with my Jewish players, it gives me hope and fills my heart with happiness. Almost every kid loves sports, and sports are an amazing way to bring all the different peoples, cultures, and religions together.

If someone had asked me a decade ago on my bus to school if I could ever imagine myself studying Arabic, I would have looked upon that person as if they were insane. And yet, that is what I am now doing. The author of my Arabic textbook (an 89-year-old French monk named Yohanan Elihai who has lived in Israel since 1956), writes that “language is the key to the heart.” My heart was opened by my Arab players and so it feels natural for me to want to learn how to communicate with them in Arabic. I guess when you come from love, and basketball is my love, anything is possible.

Play ball.  Ela’ab eltaba.

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