Building a New Middle East — Through Soccer and Weight Loss

By Juliet Lapidos

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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Coaches, take heart: Sports may promote peace. During the famous “Christmas Truce” of 1914, British and German soldiers called an unofficial cease-fire and played a game of soccer. In 1971, China and the United States came together over a game of table tennis. For the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, North and South Korean athletes competed for the same team.

This year, at the Tribeca Film Festival, there is a documentary that depicts the sporting-for-peace concept at work in the Middle East.

In “Sons of Sakhnin United,” American documentary filmmaker Chris Browne travels to Sakhnin, an impoverished Arab town in Israel. Although the townspeople can’t afford a stadium, or even a decent practice pitch, they take pride in their soccer team, B’nei Sakhnin. The team itself is an experiment in co-existence: Arab Israelis, Jews and foreigners compete together under the guidance of a Jewish coach, Eyal Lachman. As Lachman stresses in various interviews, the significance of B’nei Sakhnin transcends the world of sports. Fans and officials alike believe that if the team is successful, it could symbolize Israel’s strength as a multiethnic democracy.

Over the course of the documentary, which chronicles the 2004-2005 season, B’nei Sakhnin struggles against better-funded teams and occasionally encounters hostility. When B’nei Sakhnin is competing against Beitar Jerusalem, right-wing soccer fanatics shout ethnic slurs. One especially vindictive fan says he thinks the Arab players are all “terrorists.”

Yet the games are generally peaceful and, especially on a small scale, the team has a positive impact on Arab-Jewish relations. A Jewish member of B’nei Sakhnin, Tomer Eliyahu, says he hesitated before joining the team: His family worried that he wouldn’t be safe in an Arab town. Years on, however, Eliyahu has come to feel at home in Sakhnin and no longer views his teammates through the lens of their ethnicity. Similarly, the Arab-Israeli citizens of Sakhnin embrace the Jewish coach as one of their own. Evidently, desire for success in the Premier League trumps any sociopolitical considerations.

Another film screening at Tribeca, “A Slim Peace,” takes a somewhat less hopeful look at the diplomatic potential of communal exercise. Director Yael Luttwak brings together 14 women — Israelis, Palestinians, Bedouin Arabs and American settlers in the West Bank — who share a goal to lose weight. Initial one-on-one interviews make clear that each participant is generally mistrustful of ethnic or religious groups other than her own. Ichan Turkieh, a Palestinian, says of the settlers, “I don’t like them — they are bastards… they are thieves, they steal our land, and we are living in misery because of them.”

Although press materials assure viewers that the 14 women will “find out they have far more in common than they ever would have imagined,” this is not the case. To be sure, the women giggle about chocolate and come together over the fact that their pedometers don’t work. Yet during frank discussions, most of the participants agree that in Israel, it’s impossible to put aside political considerations. One year after the dieting program, the women admit that they don’t socialize together, and realize that they have no real desire to do so. “At the end of the day,” one of the Jewish settlers says, “our peoples are not friends.”

Juliet Lapidos is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.

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