The great equalizer

When 26 Jewish and Palestinian members of the Peres Peace Team go to Australia for the AFL International Cup next month, their participation will go far beyond simply winning or losing.

Avi Benvenisty (photo credit: Courtesy Peres Center for Peace)
Avi Benvenisty
(photo credit: Courtesy Peres Center for Peace)
It’s easy to mock the likes of Avi Benvenisty and Dari Diab Tamimi as hopeless optimists. But while cynicism has taken over on both sides of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, it’s hard not to admire the idealism and activism of those who remain determined to try to make the Middle East a better place.
Benvenisty and Diab Tamimi are two of 13 Israeli and 13 Palestinian sportsmen who will make up an Australian Rules football team for the upcoming AFL International Cup, which will run from August 12 to 27.
The team, organized by the Peres Center for Peace in cooperation with its Australian Chapter, will be taking part in the competition for a second straight time following the success of the initial initiative in 2008.
The players trained together for seven months, many of them learning the sport for the first time, in the hope of spreading the message of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and dialogue through sport and showing the world that such teamwork is possible.
“We live in a very complicated reality, but people must understand that you can start putting the puzzle together, even if you begin with the smallest pieces,” says 20- year-old Benvenisty, who lives in Beit Hakerem in Jerusalem and completed his IDF service last week. “I don’t expect to change the world, but I do hope to maybe change some people’s opinions and perhaps also meet people who will change mine. We don’t think that we will bring peace to the Middle East, but we are hoping to be role models for teenagers and encourage them to take part in similar projects.”
The AFL International Cup, which will take place in Sydney and Melbourne, is the largest international Australian Rules football event and the only one that is open to worldwide senior competition.
The inaugural competition was held in 2002. Australia was not represented in the tournament because it is the only country where the sport is played professionally.
Expatriate Australians are banned from competing, but the Peres Team for Peace, as it is known, is coached by Aussie rules legend Robert “Dipper” DiPierdomenico and Aussie expats Kevin Nafte and Danny Brill. An exception has also been made for expat Doron Zauer, who will be competing.
DiPierdomenico also guided the team three years ago, with some of the players from 2008 returning for this year’s tournament, including 23-year-old Diab Tamimi, who lives in Abu Tor.
“Sports allows us to put aside everything else that is happening in the country. We are showing the world that we can all live here in peace and that we don’t all want war,” says Diab Tamimi, who works as a truck driver in his family business, and is married and has a baby daughter.
“My family is behind me, but they asked me how I could go away with the team for so long, especially as it will be during the month of Ramadan, a time in which the family spends a lot of time together. But we are leaving our families to go and play with this team because it is that important.”
Besides being the crowd favorite among the 16 international teams three years ago, the Peace team also managed to win two matches during the tournament, despite playing the game for the first time earlier that year.
“We hope to do better this time,” Diab Tamimi says. “What really touches me is when you see a Jewish player running with the ball and his Arab teammate protecting him from an opponent coming toward him. That perhaps says it all.”
Aussie rules is played between two teams of 22 players (18 on the field and four interchanges). The object of the game is to score points by passing the ball through the opponent’s goal.
Most points are scored by kicking the ball between the two major goalposts. Players may position themselves anywhere on the field and use any part of their body to move the ball.
Benvenisty was introduced to the game only six months ago, but he has loved every moment since.
“An Australian friend of mine from the army asked me to come and watch him train because he knew I was involved in sports,” says Benvenisty. “You fall in love with the game very quickly. It’s an amazing experience. It’s a very intense sport. It’s very challenging physically, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that it is also mentally challenging. There are a lot of tactics that you have to consider while the game is going on.”
Despite the language barrier, Benvenisty feels that he has made real friends from among the Arab players on the Peace team.
“We have a really good relationship with the Arab players,” he says. “Not all the Palestinian players can speak Hebrew or English, and almost none of the Israelis can speak Arabic, but sports helps bridge these kinds of problems. We understand each other on the pitch and have an amazing relationship. We are all about the same age, and sports is something that is important in all our lives. That helps us understand each other and cooperate on the field.”
Benvenisty thinks that politicians on both sides can learn something from this team.
“From the first training session, it became very clear to me that we are all human beings, and it is just that each of us lives in a different situation,” he says. “The Palestinians may feel oppressed and the Israelis may be fearful for their safety, and each player carries with him the emotions of their people. But we all love sports, and we all love life. We are not that different at all. It is just that we face different situations in life. The politicians need to understand that we are all the same.”
With its opponents far better trained and significantly more experienced, it is unlikely that the Peace team can realistically reach the latter stages of the AFL International Cup, not to mention win it. However, Benvenisty understands that the team’s participation in the tournament goes far beyond simply winning or losing.
“After six months of training, I really believe that my Arab friends would also like to make the Middle East and Israel a better place,” he says. “First and foremost, our goal must be to show that things can be different. To show that 13 Jews and 13 Arabs can get along. But we don’t just want to go to Australia to participate in the competition. We want to go there to win games and prove to everyone that Jews and Arabs can work together and succeed.”