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Jaffa's Weitzman and neighboring Al Zahara schools share a common school yard where Jewish and Arab boys and girls play together. A road used to separate the schools, but years of pressure from the two principals led to Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality agreeing to pave over the road and pull down the fences that once separated them.
In the Weitzman School's spartan sports hall, 20 Jewish and Arab boys and girls face off forebodingly. The two rows of youngsters, aged nine to 12, solemnly bow to each other before executing a synchronized series of ritual movements, or katas, that mimic battle.
The hall reverberates to instructor Gadi Weisman's instructions barked in a stern, if compassionate tone. Self-discipline, explains Danny Hakim, Director of the Budo for Peace organization that runs the karate classes, is a trait that young residents of this rundown mixed Jewish-Arab town desperately lack.
"Bullying in schools is a tremendous problem in Israel. It has much to do with our fast, competitive society and too much television," notes Hakim, who uses traditional Japanese karate textbooks translated and adapted into Hebrew and Arabic. "We show how to deal with bullies using mental martial arts to outwit them without getting into a fistfight."
"It's not just about fighting - we use our brains," explains Huda Habish, 11, from the Al Zahara school, during a break from the karate class. "Here we learn to respect each other and control our anger. If someone attacks me, I now know how to use logic to undo the situation by listening to him and understanding why he's swearing or punching - not just to slug him back," she continues.
"Budo can be loosely translated as 'The way of stopping conflict,'" elucidates Hakim, 48, who spent 10 years in Japan and speaks Japanese. He has been practicing karate for 25 years, won silver medals for Australia at the 1987 and 1991 World Championships in Japan and Mexico, represented Australia at six Maccabiahs in Israel, and even represented Japan at the 1995 European Games in Moscow where he won a gold medal.
According to Hakim, Budo (including the arts of karate-do, judo, aikido and kendo) is a way of fostering self-confidence, discipline, mutual respect and cooperation by emphasizing physical endurance, strength and flexibility, agility, hand-eye coordination, balance and timing, as well as improving self-awareness and self-confidence.
Karate is not an Olympic sport. "I'm glad it isn't. Otherwise it would be about medals and money, not tradition," says Hakim. "It is fundamentally different because Japanese culture does not represent European or American imperialism. It is exotic, foreign, different. They wear the same white uniforms and perform synchronized movements in unison. It's more than a physical language - it's an attitude that says 'I respect the other person, or place.'"
He points out the ritual bows to the teacher and other participants at the beginning of every session. "Bowing is more than ceremony - it is meditation. We don't perform the traditional prostrate bow because of religious sensibilities. Instead, we fist the left hand and cover it with the right. The left hand symbolizes a rock - your family, religion, values close to your heart. The right hand symbolizes water - flexibility of thought and body. Together, they represent friendship."
"We're not play-fighting," explained Joey Balichi, a 10-year-old Jewish boy from a working-class Jaffa home. "We want to know how to defend ourselves, but not just to fight back. Here we learn mutual respect."
"I really enjoy these classes because they show me how to deal with my and others' aggressiveness," added David Minkov, another of the young participants.
Habish, Balichi's much smaller karate classmate, shrugged when asked about her Jewish peers. "It makes no difference where they come from," said the petite Muslim girl.
Despite his track record, Hakim had to earn his Israeli trainer's certificate by attending a course at the Wingate Institute for Sport and Physical Education near Netanya following his aliya six years ago. "I was amazed to discover that half of the 25-strong class were young Arab women," he recalls, "although in Japan I trained with many Arabs. Iran is the leading country in world karate."
Hakim sat next to 17-year-old Shadya Zoabi, who went on to win gold at the 2003 World Shotokan Karate Championship. Hakim became her trainer, and co-produced the documentary Shadya about her struggle to reconcile with being an Israeli-Muslim Arab-female athlete, that has screened on public television stations and at film festivals the world over. "In return, she helped me learn Hebrew," he laughs.
In Japan, Hakim ran a travel company. "I brought my first Japanese-Christian group to Israel in September 2001, when we witnessed Palestinians in East Jerusalem celebrating 9/11," he recalls.
Yet he has a mission. "We're using karate as a tool for coexistence in Israel."
The Budo for Peace project began in January 2005. Hakim had previously organized a meeting of Jewish, Israeli-Arab and Palestinian youths in Greece, an event widely reported in the world media but overlooked at home. "The Japanese money provided some of the seed money," he says, "but without One to One's funding, Budos for Peace could not function."
The karate project is one of a plethora of activities sponsored by the British-based One to One charity. "The organization started in the 1970s as the "35's," a charity supporting former Soviet Jews who were having a tough time adjusting to life in Israel, and evolved into One to One," Ronit Shebson, PR Consultant to One to One Israel, told Metro.
As well as its coexistence projects in Israel, One to One supports AIDS-related endeavors in South Africa and women's issues in Kosovo. The charity is passionately committed to the belief that disadvantaged children deserve a better start to life, Shebson elaborated. "The aim is to build relationships at grass-roots level."
Hedy Wax, Director of One to One's activities in Israel, described the scope of the undertaking. "We concentrate on after-school activities, four times a week. This includes hot meals, help with homework, drama groups, arts, computer rooms and seven after-school clubs for children at risk or with learning disabilities. We run four centers for Druse, two for Muslim Arabs and one Beduin center with 80 kids. We fund and help operate three horseback riding centers for physically disabled youngsters in the center of the country, and a cycling group for Ethiopian children in Netanya. At 10 centers the emphasis is on a bicycling program with trips that take them into the countryside and teach them to appreciate nature. They also learn bicycle maintenance and how to help each other. This program has been especially active in the north since last summer's war. At the Mercaz Kochav center in Ma'alot, there's fruitful [Jewish-Arab] cooperation."
Ten Budo for Peace training centers, or Dojos, currently operate around the country. Each has a main group of 9-12-year-olds, and a smaller group of 14-17-year-olds. One Dojo, in the Kadourie agricultural school (where Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon studied) includes Jews, Arabs, Beduins and Circassians.
Says Shebson: "The Budo project is a physical illustration of coexistence in practice."
About 220 youngsters participate twice weekly. "All are from middle-to-low class families," explains Hakim. "Some are problem kids."
One hour of every session is devoted to the physical aspects of the martial art, and half an hour to educational issues. "We're an educational organization, not just a martial arts school," stresses Hakim. "One activity is teaching the element of surprise. We tell them to go home and surprise their parents by taking out the litter or washing the dishes, and to watch their parents' reaction."
The locations are close to each other, and twinned groups regularly get together in neutral venues provided by the YMCA, partners in the project.
All the Jewish, Arab and Beduin teachers are experienced and certified, assisted by teenaged trainee teachers, notes Hakim.
Bi-monthly training events are held at the Wingate Institute, attended by all 60 of the Twinned Dojo students and their senseis (teachers), who come from clubs as diverse as Bueina-Nujeidat, an Arab village near Tiberias, attended by 24 Israeli Arab students; Al-Isawiya, a Palestinian-Arab town in east Jerusalem, attended by 20 Palestinian Arab students; and Beersheba, attended by 18 Jewish-Israeli students.
Participants arrive early Friday morning and sleep overnight at the hotel in mixed rooms, returning home on Saturday evening. Events include a broad range of martial arts and peace activities, attended by guest instructors from fields including karate, other martial arts and Japanese art forms such as calligraphy. Joint team games and conflict resolution activities play a large part in the weekend program, building confidence and instilling feelings of mutual respect.
Further centers are being established in Galilee, the outskirts of Jerusalem and in the Negev region, partly funded by One to One.
"It costs about $150,000 a year to run the Budo for Peace program in its present form," notes Shebson. "The potential to expand is huge. Israel has many qualified martial arts instructors who believe in this, but expansion is limited by finances."