(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a rare example of constructive interaction, a group of Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab and Palestinian youngsters are competing on a joint team at this weekend's World Shotokan Karate championships in Tokyo.
One member of the team, Israeli Arab Riad Lahwani, 10, from Arrabe in the Galilee, overcame a 10-year-old Iranian opponent in the "Juniors Free Fight Competition" before losing out to a Japanese competitor.
The team - which was welcomed at a party hosted by Israel's Ambassador to Japan Eli Cohen, himself a high-level "5th Dan" in karate - marched together at the tournament's opening ceremony on Saturday under their "Budo for Peace" flag (budo is the Japanese term for martial arts) and received a standing ovation from the 10,000 people who packed the stadium.
The youngsters and their coaches then demonstrated a complex series of karate moves together. The 16 Israeli and Palestinian members initially faced each other in two lines and attacked each other, but the move then turned into a series of handshakes - underlining what Budo for Peace's Israeli founder, Australian immigrant Danny Hakim, told The Jerusalem Post is the goal of his program: to help overcome fear and mistrust through the martial arts values of respect, harmony and self-control. Hakim addressed the crowd - his message was also printed in English and Japanese in the official championships program - setting out the goals of Budo for Peace.
Official teams from Israel and from "Palestine" are also participating in the world championships, in separate delegations from the joint Budo for Peace team.
Hakim said it was unclear whether the Iranians knew that Lahwani is an Israeli Arab or whether they would have allowed their representative to fight him if they had known. "They knew he was from the Budo for Peace group," Hakim said in a telephone interview from Tokyo.
The participation in these 50th anniversary world championships of the Budo for Peace team, members of which have been training together for several years, had been strongly encouraged by the Japanese, Hakim said, including Master Kanazawa, the president of the Shotokan Karate International Federation. Team leaders and members have met in Tokyo with competitors from around the world, including Iraqis and Iranians.
The Budo for Peace participants left for Japan last Monday. A Bulgarian Christian and an Indian Hindu also joined up with the team members.
"Our goal is to show the other nations that Israelis and Palestinians can work together and try to diminish the hate," said Hakim. "We're not an organization that promotes competition as the only goal. It's philosophical and spiritual."
Hakim made aliya five years ago and has studied martial arts for more than 30 years. He started Budo for Peace more than two years ago when he opened three centers, one in east Jerusalem, one in Beersheba and one in the Galilee. Hakim has now launched a Web site - at www.budoforpeace.org - to record the progress of the Japan trip, and to encourage budo organizations from other countries that are meeting with the group to start their own branches of Budo for Peace.
Budo is a collective term for several forms of martial arts like karate, judo and ikido. The students train in the martial arts twice a week at the centers and also learn different aspects of Japanese culture, like origami and Japanese calligraphy.
While Budo for Peace received some sponsorship to help with the expenses of the trip, some children had difficulty finding enough money. The accommodations in Japan are being paid for by the Shotokan group. Budo for Peace and its sponsors are paying some of the airfares.
Participant Wisam Nassar, a black belt student who trains in Arrabe, said the trip was "the biggest thing a person like me can hope for."
Hakim, who plans on opening 12 more centers all over the country this month, said he hadn't seen any problems between the children when they practice because they all wear the same clothes, speak the same Japanese terms and do the same movements.
"Practicing together provides a chance for a common interest," he said. "As for the trip to Japan, this is something they have been dreaming of. It's really an incredible thing for the kids."