‘Ultimate Peace’ comes to the Middle East

Jewish and Arab teens learn integrity, cooperation and personal responsibility through Frisbee – and without a mention of politics.

frisbee311 (photo credit: Ohad Segal)
(photo credit: Ohad Segal)
While peace in the Middle East often seems elusive, a unique initiative is helping Jewish and Arab teenagers learn mutual respect, non-violence and coexistence. The deep bonds of friendship these young people are developing transcend religion, culture and regional conflicts.
Organized by international organization Ultimate Peace, this new project involves no lectures, and politics are never mentioned.
Instead, the kids are taught how to play Frisbee together.
The brainchild of three Frisbee players – Israeli Dori Yaniv, and Americans Dr. David Barkan and Linda Sikorsky – the goal of Ultimate Peace is to use the sport to create bonds of friendship and understanding for youth from different social and cultural backgrounds.
While several organizations, including the United Nations, have developed programs that use sport to promote cross-community coexistence, Ultimate Peace is the first to use Frisbee.
Ultimate, a variation of Frisbee involving teams of seven players, is particularly suited to building bridges between divided communities, says Ultimate Peace co-founder and director, Dori Yaniv. An engineer by training, Yaniv got hooked on Ultimate in 1993 and now promotes the sport throughout Israel. He believes Ultimate Frisbee is the ultimate bridge-building sport.
How can a simple flying plastic disc be such a force for good, and why should it be better than, say, soccer at promoting coexistence? The answer, according to Yaniv, lies in what soccer and other team sports have that Ultimate does not – namely, a referee and playing field aggression.
“Unlike other competitive sports, Ultimate is played without a referee,” says Yaniv. Instead, players rely on themselves and their own personal integrity to solve in-game problems or disputes. In this they are guided by a principle they call the Spirit of the Game – a combination of sportsmanship, respect for others, fair play and fun.
“In Ultimate, players are forced to negotiate solutions themselves,” adds David Barkan, Ultimate Peace’s co-founder. “Ultimate players learn to compromise, listen to others, deal with differences in opinion and take responsibility for their own actions.”
Ultimate’s focus on developing non-aggressive, cooperative ways to solve problems sans referee is key to the sport’s growing popularity around the world, as well as to its ability to unite people, says Barkan.
A clinical and organizational psychologist with 30 years of Ultimate experience, Barkan describes how the seeds of Ultimate Peace were germinated two years ago.
Together with Yaniv, he organized a visit to Israel for US Jewish Ultimate team The Matza Balls. As they promoted the sport among Israeli youth, the Americans were disappointed that Frisbee was not played at all in neighboring Arab communities.
“We realized there was a great deal of potential for spreading the sport here,” says Barkan.
Together with their partner Linda Sikorsky in the US, Barkan and Yaniv decided to help Arab and Jewish children share the joys of Ultimate, play together on a team, and work together at settling disagreements.
The result was Ultimate Peace in the Middle East, an initiative to forge connections between Jewish and Arab communities by teaching local children how to play this new sport. In this, they are aided by the Israeli Ministry of Sport, which is helping connect them with sports organizations in Arab and Jewish communities around the country.
“There is a real need and a desire here in Israel to get kids involved in new activities,” Barkan adds.
THIS JULY, Ultimate Peace put to the test its idea that Ultimate can help unite divided communities, with a residential summer camp in Acre. For a week, 145 Jewish-Israeli, Israeli-Arab, and Palestinian teenagers lived together on a youth village, learning how to play Ultimate and learning about each other at the same time.
“Camp UP was a life-changing experience,” says Yaniv. “None of these kids had ever even played Frisbee before.”
“It was a risky business, bringing these kids together,” laughs Barkan. “We had 60 staff, including 40 coaches – and we needed all of them.”
The teenagers were separated into mixed teams of 12. Jewish, Israeli-Arab and Palestinians suddenly found themselves playing on the same side.
“We were all wondering to what extent they would integrate,” says Barkan. “Would they just hang out with their friends?” Ultimate Peace’s best hopes were realized as these young people found themselves united by the Spirit of the Game.
“The teams spent all their time together,” Barkan says. “They played Ultimate together, they hung out with each other, listening to music, talking, playing.”
While Camp UP promotes friendship and understanding between Jews and Arabs, politics were firmly off the agenda. It’s perhaps not surprising that the fun of learning, playing and sharing a new sport with new friends was more relevant to these children than the ins and outs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The truth is, the social component of Ultimate was enough to create a peaceful environment,” says Barkan, who describes the growing friendship between a 16-year-old Ethiopian Jewish girl and one of the Arab coaches, a young woman of 17. “There was a really beautiful moment when these two young women sang a duet together in Hebrew,” remembers Barkan.
Nadin Shlosh, an Arab coach at Camp UP, says that the experience of camp was a very meaningful one for her and for the six girls under her care.
Shlosh works in the sports department of an Arab regional council, coaching local girls in basketball and soccer. She got involved with Ultimate Peace when her council was asked to select six girls to attend Camp UP. Shlosh says she jumped at the chance to go along as their guide.
“I’d never even heard of Ultimate,” she laughs. “So I researched it on the Internet as much as I could.”
At Camp UP, Shlosh says she learned what makes Ultimate so special.
“Whereas in soccer or basketball, the referee has the final say about any problems, in Ultimate you have to solve the problems yourself,” she explains. “So it develops the personality of the player. It makes her more social and friendly and gives her the ability to speak and convince others.”
Barkan is particularly happy that the friendships formed at the camp are continuing even after the children have returned home. Via Ultimate Peace’s Facebook page, the young participants of Camp UP are sharing memories, messages and jokes and proving that although they come from different backgrounds, they are not so different after all.
Over the coming year, Barkan and Yaniv plan more initiatives, including monthly sessions in Arab and Jewish villages, training community coaches and instructors, and a twinned Youth League. They hope that if youth from different backgrounds learn the values taught by Ultimate now, they will be empowered as adults to work together and solve the difficult challenges facing the region.
Haneen, one of the teenage participants in Camp UP, shares this optimism for a better future in a Facebook message to her new friends: “The most beautiful times of my life… our cooperation will not end and will remain in every heart.”
More information about Ultimate Peace can be found at www.ultimatepeace.org