Aiming high

A basketball tournament promotes coexistence

On any given Wednesday, passersby will see Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park filled with perspiring teenage hoopsters, running, dribbling and shouting to each other in a bevy of languages. However June 13, the beginning of the Fifth Annual Street Ball Tournament, was not just any Wednesday. The two-day competition shook up the courts in an effort to unite members of Jerusalem's basketball-playing community despite their cultural and religious differences. The concept behind the tournament came from the observation that although many different cultural groups play basketball in Liberty Bell Park, they very rarely play together. The event, sponsored by the International Cultural Center for Youth and the Jerusalem Foundation, draws teams from across the city, providing a neutral platform for cross-cultural interaction. "Sports activities are far away from politics and cultural disputes - playing basketball together gives people a chance to get to know each other more deeply, to talk to each other, to see that they can get along and they can cooperate," says Razit Cohen-Shar, the program director of Merkaz Tarbut Amim. "I have seen the tournament reduce the level of prejudice... players can see that people they have never communicated with, never learned about except what you hear on the news, can play with them, really leave all the conflicts behind and just focus on the things that they love to do." Over the course of the tournament nearly 70 teams, comprised of Muslims, Arab Christians, and both religious and secular Jews, competed for the trophy and an NIS 250 gift certificate to athletic store Sport Atid for each player. Teams played in one of four divisions: Teen, Youth, Adult and Women. Participation in this year's tournament was the highest yet, and organizers are already expecting upward of 100 teams for next year. A large number of participants are returning competitors, drawn in, according to Street Ball Tournament spokesman Omer Engelstein, by the competitive spirit but captured by the environment. "There are lots of different people from different backgrounds, and you can listen and hear things you don't usually hear - not even about politics, just about life." The players themselves seem to have widely varying experiences at the tournament. Yoav Molcho, a secular Israeli and three-time competitor, says that he does not feel like he has met many Arabs or religious Jews through the tournament, but returns because he "just likes basketball." Shaker Khoury, 19, says that he will play with anyone who is friendly, regardless of religion or race. For Khoury, an Arab Christian, the tournament serves as a place to connect to and befriend both Muslims and Jews though he, like Molcho, is mostly compelled to play because he loves basketball and he wants to win. Salem Copty, his teammate, has returned to the tournament for a second year but worries that non-Jews are marginalized. Though he is fluent in English, Arabic and of course the language of basketball, Copty can only understand bits and pieces of the loudspeaker announcements, which are delivered only in Hebrew. While language barriers certainly present a significant impediment to constructive communication, many players still feel that the tournament accomplishes its goals. Gedalia Gillis, a 15-year-old religious Jew from Baka, chooses to participate in the tournament even though he plays basketball with his Arab friends on a regular basis. "The headlines always show Jews and Arabs killing each other," reflects Gillis. "I play because it is important to have a headline once in a while that shows Jews and Arabs playing basketball together, too." This year, Street Ball organizers put particularly heavy emphasis on the themes of unity and coexistence. A documentary film compiled over the course of the tournament was presented at the concluding ceremony, along with a concert featuring Arab, secular, and Haredi bands. For the less athletic among us, Street Ball offered a coexistence poster competition as well. The winning poster featured the slogan "Coexistence for me, for you, for the entire universe." The happy, focused faces of the players at the Street Ball tournament certainly made this lofty goal seem more attainable.