Streetball tournament brings together Jews and Arabs

Despite glimmers of hope in this latest attempt to bridge cultural divides, the project highlights vast difficulties.

streetball 88 (photo credit: )
streetball 88
(photo credit: )
Some 350 Jewish and Arab Israeli teenagers lined up to play in the International Cultural and Community Center and Anti-Defamation League's Intercultural Streetball Tournamen at Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Garden on Wednesday. While there were numerous glimmers of hope in this latest attempt to bridge cultural divides through the power of sport, the project also highlighted the vast difficulties any such effort encounters. Before the games began the half-court line divided the two distinct groups - the Israeli Arab players on one side and the Jewish Israelis on the other. As loud hip-hop beats infused the courts, teams of three started to play against each other and slowly the divides began to fall, but never completely. It was only after the first game that the players began to warm up to each other, although some separations remained throughout the session. But all afternoon the majority of the teams were either all Arab or all Jewish, with only a few mixed teams. Yali Ben-Ami, the coordinator of the tournament, remained positive throughout while staying realistic. "You'll see such distinct groups in the beginning. But after they start to play the tension goes down," she said. Ben-Ami said she believes that sports "can bridge the gap between Arab and Israelis today." "By playing sports with one another they can see similarities and realize that they are both human beings," she added. However, fully closing the gap is going to take a long time. "There are still definite groups between the Arab and the Jewish players. There are only about 10 teams that are mixed out of about 50 teams, but those 10 teams are still an improvement," Ben-Ami said. Netanel Vasal, a 19-year-old Jewish Israeli participant, said he thinks that the tournament only has a minimal impact on improving Israeli and Arab relations. "The games are fun. I love to play basketball, that's why I came, not really for the purpose of talking with Arabs," Vasal told the Post. "I don't think a basketball game is going improve the relationship with Arabs. We still have a long way to go." Unlike Vasal, east Jerusalem resident Mahalid Mohammed was unsure whether the programs like the Streetball tournament can ever create a significant impact. "This program is fun and in a way it creates a bond between Israelis and Arabs, but this bond fades after a few minutes and then everything seems to go back to normal," says Mohammed. "It provides something, but I don't think that a basketball game is going to make the big difference." The event did not only use the basketball court as a method of bringing the youngsters together. The players also participated in a dialogue program run by the Anti-Defamation League, a new addition brought to the program this year. A tent was set up in the park where players came in to participate in conversations run by the ADL's Coordinator of Educational Programming, Rachel Kedar before and after their games. "The purpose of the workshop is to bring two different groups, that are so far apart, together," says Kedar. "By conversing and participating in various activities, we want them to be able to see that they each have similarities to one another," says Kedar. Even though, there was some conversation flowing in the tent, one couldn't help but notice the distinct separation between the Jewish and Arab players. The Arabs spoke out about how they feel subordinate to Jewish Israelis while the Jewish participants defended themselves and the debate descended into an exchange of views over the history of the State of Israel. As Kedar ran the discussion, the Arab players sat on one side of the tent, directly opposite from the Jewish players. The tent stayed still with an awkward silence for a good 10 minutes before the conversations began. "You will always see a hesitance," says Kedar. "But if you keep trying you will slowly see some improvement."