One on One: Kick starting peace?

Karate champion Danny Hakim spreads his martial-arts skills to promote coexistence - a particular challenge where certain populations are concerned.

karate 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
karate 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Budo for Peace founder Danny Hakim - two-time world silver medalist for his native Australia - is best known these days for inspiring Jewish, Arab and Palestinian youth to "hit the mats," instead of one another. Indeed, since the 2004 inception of Hakim's brainchild, jump-started financially by the Japanese government - and now also sponsored by Sugat Industries, One-to-One Israel and Ben & Jerry's ice cream - BFP has mushroomed to 12 clubs countrywide. Hakim attributes the success of his endeavor to the values he teaches as an integral part of the martial arts - such as courtesy, kindness, respect, responsibility and self-control - claiming that people first have to learn to achieve these things within themselves, before they can practice them with others. Once they do, he says, they are ripe for managing conflict, rather than engaging in it. Perhaps. But after spending an hour with the karate champ who now has an award-winning film credit under his sixth-degree black belt, I would say Hakim's pull has more to do with his own personal passion than with the peace-striving of his pupils, as committed to conflict resolution as they may be. Concern for the future of the Middle East aside, what is most compelling about Hakim is that he is one of those rare, enviable individuals who has managed to channel all of the things he does best and cares about most into a career. No small feat for a Zionist from Sydney whose aliya was postponed by a 10-year detour in Japan. There, the 49-year-old former Betar youth movement leader studied under Master Hirokazu Kanazawa - whose "claim to fame in Israel," laughs Hakim, "is that he taught Elvis Presley," but whose real acclaim comes from his having a three-million-member-strong international organization. (Hakim, too, has a celebrity in the woodpile, by the way - movie star Steven Seagal - who taught him aikido in Japan, and whom he describes fondly as "a bad actor, but a great instructor.") During the mere seven years since his arrival here - where he resides in upscale Herzliya Pituah, no less - Hakim has not only gotten married, fathered two children and turned BFP into both a widely respected undertaking (UNESCO is considering implementing the model in other conflict-ridden countries) and a hot media commodity, as attempts to solve the Palestinian-Israeli impasse usually are. But he is now in the process of launching a new addition to his repertoire: a project that will bring young Jews here from abroad to study history, Hebrew and leadership in a martial-arts framework. Hakim denies that any of his work reflects political leanings. "It's all about securing a better future for my children," he says, pointing, among other things, to the rise of violence in the schools. Nor does he see the spiritual side of martial arts as clashing in any way with Judaism. "I put on tefillin every morning," he says, matter-of-factly, making the lack of a kippa on his head suddenly conspicuous. He is aware, however, of the problematic nature, for some Jews and Muslims, of the martial-arts ritual of bowing down before instructors and opponents. In an adjustment to the norms of the region, he has tweaked the tradition a tiny bit, by creating a different gesture for expressing respect. This is by no means the only form of cultural adaptation Hakim has had to introduce to the ancient art and his modern craft. This is the Middle, not the Far, East, after all. Asked whether he really thinks that this type of cooperation between kids can affect their warring adult counterparts, Hakim is unequivocal. "Absolutely," he asserts. Would that the rest of us could be so certain. What is Budo, and what sparked Budo for Peace? In Japanese, "Bu" has two meanings - martial arts and stopping conflict - and "Do" means path. So, "Budo" means "the path of stopping conflict." Budo for Peace, then, is our attempt at stopping conflict through the martial arts. When I came here and wanted to be a karate instructor, I was required to do a course at Wingate for a teaching certificate - even though I'd been teaching karate for decades. [He laughs.] It was like having to get a driver's license. Half the students in my class turned out to be Arab Israelis. And half of them were women. One of those women was Shadya, and she and I became friends. She was more interested in improving her karate skills than in learning all the theory we were being taught. And I was interested in learning Hebrew, because mine was atrocious. So, she and I made a deal that I would teach her advanced karate and she would help me with my Hebrew. Up until that point, I hadn't really understood the distinction between Arab Israelis and Palestinians. Feeling that I really wanted to do something to prove that it is possible for Israelis and Palestinians to become friends through martial arts, I approached the coach of the Palestinian karate team - whom I had met at world championships when I was a member of the Australian team - and asked him if he was interested in joining in this endeavor, which I decided to make a film about. He said yes. I told him there was an upcoming world championship in South Africa, and asked if he would be willing to send a team there - and be involved in this film. He said sure. But when we got to South Africa with a film crew, the Palestinians didn't want to cooperate. They basically said that we could be friends, "but not on camera." Shadya, who was on the Israeli team, got upset, as I did, because the Palestinians weren't willing to cooperate. It was really the first time that she met these Palestinians. So she went up to them and asked, "Why won't you talk to me?" And they said, "Because you're an Israeli." She answered, "I'm a Palestinian, like you." [In the film, when the Palestinian team comes in first place, Shadya wraps herself in the Palestinian flag and dances around the auditorium, to the dismay of her own teammates.] We were able to get that exchange on film, and I realized that this was an even more interesting story than that of Israelis and Palestinians doing karate together. That's how I decided to follow Shadya for another two years. And that's how I did the film, Shadya, which shows several very real problems a woman like her has to contend with, both as a Muslim female who arouses the anger of her community for her participation in what is a considered a male field, and as an Israeli with an identity crisis, due to her partial identification with the Palestinians. The topic is so interesting, and the film ended up winning first prize in the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Shadya is now one of my instructors in Budo for Peace. Why didn't the Palestinians want to appear on camera with Israelis, even at a karate championship? They were afraid, and that's understandable. The terrorists are bullying the moderates who want to cooperate with Israel, and call them collaborators. We are trying to help them be able to face those bullies, and then maybe we'll be able to change things. As a former leader of Betar in Australia, is it not peculiar that one of your main projects involves Jewish-Arab-Palestinian cooperation? On the contrary. [Betar founder Ze'ev] Jabotinsky said that when there is a Jewish state, there must be equality between Arabs and Jews. As a Zionist who made aliya, the pioneering path I have chosen is trying to bring about that very crucial coexistence. It's true that many people regard anyone who was in Betar as very right wing, but that's been misconstrued. Since I came here, the only Betar I've heard about is [soccer team] Betar Jerusalem, which has a very warped view of our neighbors. Having been on the Australian karate team for many years helped me understand that it is possible for different peoples to live together. On my team there were Australians from Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese and other backgrounds, and we all practiced together, and represented Australia together. Speaking of Betar Jerusalem, what is the difference between sports like soccer and martial arts, in terms of coexistence? Traditional martial arts involve the mind, the body and the soul. It's not about beating someone. It's about developing yourself. It's about respect for others. It's about creating harmony, first of all within yourself, and then with others. Martial artists, you will notice, bow to each other and to their instructor. They wear the same white uniforms. When you look at our kids, you can see that they all bow the same, wear the same clothes, do the same movements, use the same Japanese terminology. It's like a third culture that breaks down barriers. You don't really have that in soccer, unless you're practicing together on the same team. Then there's team spirit. But when you have one team against the other - such as an Arab team against a Jewish one - you have political views against each other and radicalism. Do you not find it hard to teach something that involves mind, body and soul to Israeli kids, not known for their manners - certainly not for "bowing down" to their teachers? Absolutely. In general, I suffered culture shock coming here, after growing up in the liberal atmosphere of Australia and then living in Japan, where people are very polite, taught to conform and where it's outrageous to yell. In this country, it's the opposite. Here, when someone wants to be heard, he yells louder, or sticks his hands in front of your face. This was very foreign to me, and it took me a while to adapt to it. Also, I did indeed find, in the martial arts scene, that the mental and spiritual aspect was missing. I'm trying to introduce that through teaching not only the physical side, but the educational one as well. We have textbooks in Hebrew and Arabic which promote values. That's part of our actual training program. What happens to the kids when they first come to a course, and discover that it involves more than merely kicking and karate-chopping - that it requires not only severe discipline, but also studying textbook material? Do they get disappointed or rowdy? To some extent, yes, but we do a lot of role-playing, which kids love, and other exercises, such as one that demonstrates the element of surprise. We ask the kids to go home and volunteer to do chores, like taking out the garbage or washing the dishes - with a polite bow - and then come back and share their experience. Most of them tell about how their parents were shocked. Of course, we have to adjust this culturally, because Beduin boys, for example, don't take out garbage or wash dishes, so we have them volunteering, say, to groom the horse or wash the car. The role playing involves having the kids take turns playing bully and victim. This we do to teach that the aim of a martial artist is to avoid conflict, not to get into fights - as so many do in school. We try to show the kids where bullying comes from - that it usually has to do with a person's upbringing - and that greater awareness, and even a bit of compassion, makes it easier to feel more confident against a bully. You know about the "fight or flight" paradigm. Well, we try to teach that neither is the right way to approach the situation. The key is learning how to become strong in the mind. Do kids tell you stories about having implemented in school what you teach them at the clubs, thereby avoiding a specific conflict or dealing with an actual bully? Yes. There are quite a few such stories. Unfortunately, neither parents nor teachers are trained in how to deal with bullies. The Education Ministry has been trying over the last year to educate teachers in how to deal with bullying in the schools, but it hasn't succeeded. Lack of success also seems to characterize most coexistence programs. It is Jews who initiate and promote them, and try to get publicity for them, while the Palestinians tend to be more tepid, in the best of cases. Does your work really have an impact on both sides of the conflict? I think it does have an impact on both sides. One of the values we teach is taking responsibility for your actions. This is particularly effective for Jews who feel victimized by Arab terrorism, and for Palestinians who feel bullied by the IDF. You say that some Palestinians feel bullied by the IDF. Don't they feel bullied by their own leaders? Yes. If you cannot get up and say, "I want to cooperate with the Israelis," you're a victim of bullying. Have you encountered any resistance on the part of Jewish participants, for whom bowing down before anyone other than God seems like idolatry? There have been religious Jews in Budo for Peace who wouldn't bow down before the instructor, so I developed a different system. Our logo is a left hand clenched in a fist, covered by a right hand. The left hand, which is on the side of the body where the heart is located, symbolizes the rock - anything that's important to you, like your religion and your family. The right hand symbolizes water - the flexibility of mind and body, as well as friendship. Putting the right hand over the left fist means being both "stone-headed" and flexible. So, how we get around the bowing is to do that gesture with our hands and tip our heads slightly. This is acceptable to religious Jews and Muslims. Personally, I don't consider this to contradict my Judaism. To me it's very clear that you can live a martial-arts way of life and also lead a spiritual-Jewish way of life. You are now launching a new program that focuses on Jews. What is its purpose? It is called "Budokan Masa Martial Arts and Israel Leadership Program." It is one of the Jewish Agency's 150 "Masa" programs, and one of eight of its new incubation programs. It is for young adults from abroad, who will come to Sdot Yam for five months - beginning in October - to study martial arts, Jewish history, Hebrew and leadership. So, it is completely separate from Budo for Peace, but if some of the participants want to volunteer assisting in the Budo for Peace program, I'll let them do so, to give them the opportunity to learn about and experience the complexities of Israeli society. Speaking of complexity, how did a Betar boy from Australia - who spent many years in Japan - end up making aliya relatively late in life? Although I was born "down under," living most of my life there and even proudly representing Australia at many world karate competitions, my making aliya is like completing a circle, in more ways than one. Interestingly, the Japanese character for "harmony" is a circle. For one thing, I could easily be considered a third-generation Palestinian refugee. My father was born in Cairo, and my mother in Alexandria. My paternal grandfather was born in Safed, where our family was for seven generations. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Hakim, was a kabbalist and the chief rabbi of Safed, as was his father. My mother's grandparents fled the pogroms of Odessa by moving to Egypt. And it was my maternal grandmother who paid for my first karate lessons as a bar mitzva present. For another thing, during my first visit to Israel in 1977 - on a year program representing Betar - Menachem Begin became prime minister and made peace with Egypt. This had special significance for me, both because of my Egyptian roots and because it was Begin who was able to make a peace - from a position of strength. It really takes a strong leader to make peace, not out of fear, but with a conviction that it is good for his country. My work in Budo for Peace is not a political statement. It is simply my small way of trying to secure a better future for my children.