The Ultimate Peace camp program in Israel by the Forward

How Israeli and Palestinian Teens Are Bonding Over Frisbee

David Barkan is a legend in the world of Ultimate Frisbee, a competitive game that is soccer-meets-football-meets-catch with a frisbee. David has played and coached on four continents and has even been inducted into the Ultimate Frisbee Hall of Fame (don’t worry, I didn’t know it existed either).

But as a lover of Israel, a trained problem solver and a indefatigable optimist, David decided to blend his passions into an endeavor called Ultimate Peace, which I had the privilege of visiting this summer. Ten years young, the Ultimate Peace program invites serious Ultimate players who identify as Jewish, Muslim or Christian and are from Palestinian, Israeli or even some American cities to come to this sea of green fields for one week to play Ultimate with one another, learn skills about the game from coaches around the globe, and to learn about each other’s backgrounds, customs and cultures.

Karym Barhom is the only one on the field who cannot toss the frisbee. His sport is soccer but, his skill set on this field transcends any cleats or equipment. Karym, like his name, is a kind man, a sweet face and a hopeful disposition. He is a facilitator and organizer for kids, par-excellence, who focuses on mingling Arab and Jewish teens to share a better future. He lives in a small Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem where implementing the dream of shared values, education and coexistence preoccupy his days. He is the child of devout Muslims but today, considers himself more spiritual than religious. (Sound familiar?)

In this sacred space where Ultimate Peace Camp happens, the only walls are the ones surrounding the field. Teams are divided by t-shirt color. Religion and nationality are nowhere to be found. All signs, whether drawn by campers or, stationed in the corners of the field highlighting the core values of the camp are in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Lunch is shared around a table with teammates and coaches. For one week, the high walls in the day-to-day life that surrounds these kids 51 weeks a year — and inhibit them from seeing and interacting with one another — are torn down. For one week, faces are seen, stories are told and neighbors get to meet, some for the first time.

The rules of Ultimate Frisbee is a potent metaphor for the goals of this camp and these two peoples: There is no clock, which seems to fit perfectly for this never-ending conflict. There is no referee, no physical touching of any players, and, most interestingly, you cannot run with the frisbee. You can only pass it to a moving teammate. That is, to be a star in this game, you must assist others in scoring.

These kids don’t come to camp with duffels, yet they each carry loads of baggage. As we watched fighter jets and helicopters swirl overhead, it created visceral reactions from both sides. Israeli kids looked up and knew that soon, their day to enlist in the IDF ;would come. They sensed that these drills were not for sport, but to prepare the country for not “if”, but “when”, war will occur again.

For the Palestinian kids, the IDF is the enemy. They are armed, hold control and focus indiscriminately on the Palestinians.

Differences do not end with the army. Most of these kids will go home to parents and siblings that have been conditioned to see the Ultimate teammates of their child and sibling as the enemy. They are the bomber and the oppressor, the terrorist and the occupier. The idea of breaking down these age-old barriers works fine for the Ultimate Peace participants who spend a week on the field without walls but how does that transcend to the family room and the classroom? How can this magical week and the relationships that begin to bud and understanding that starts to occur, be nourished and cultivated and then imported to others who have had years of built up prejudice, distrust and hopelessness? Mapping out a game plan for that obstacle is not a simple task.

This came to a head last summer, when the site of the camp was a few kilometers closer to Ashkelon, and just a few more kilometers away from the Gaza Strip. Randomly, in the middle of an early evening, rockets were launched by Hamas militants towards the city where UP camp was based. The rockets were visible to the naked eye, and being so close to Gaza, the campers had just a few seconds to hide in a shelter.

Karym had to field dozens of phone calls of frantic parents and their demands that their children come home. Karym also understood that if UP campers started to go home because of tensions that terrorists created in Gaza, the backbone of the camp and the very enterprise he and David Barkan work year-round to establish, could come to a thundering close.

In the end, not one camper went home. Karym spoke with each family: one by one, with patience, empathy and compassion. Today, the camp is larger than ever and securing a coaching spot has never been more competitive. 150 ranked UP players from around the globe are applying for just 50 spots.

Ultimate is slated to be an Olympic sport in 2028. Israel is working on a national team, some of whom might be plucked from this very camp. But, there is one problem. If Palestinians are on the team, many will refuse to wear the Israeli flag on their chest nor, stand for the Hatikvah. After all, they are not Nefesh Yehudi, the Jewish soul that the anthem sings about and the flag does not represent them. Moments like these are stark reminders that this conflict has endless veins and arteries that weave through the lives of the people in this narrow strip of land in the Middle East. Blockages within these arteries pop up randomly and often, and are not easily bypassed.

One young woman, Yasmin, is from a Palestinian village in Northern Israel, near the Galilee. She was a camper for 4 years at UP and her younger brother has been in the camp for 3 years. She is now working in the camp’s health clinic, since she is studying medicine in Romania — mostly offering cold towels and electrolyte drinks to dehydrated kids.

When I asked how far along Yasmin was with her medical studies, she told me three years and was just starting anatomy and working with cadavers. I thought to myself that whether from Romania, Hungary, India, Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia or Cyprus, bodies and organs are the same. When dissecting these cadavers you cannot see hate, cut through religion or peel back political affiliation. We all share common strands of DNA. Programs like Ultimate Peace look tear down walls and build relationships, one by one, that hopefully one day, will bear fruits of a new future and a better tomorrow.

That is a leap worth making.

Rabbi David Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, NJ and past president of the NY Board of Rabbis.

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How Israeli and Palestinian Teens Are Bonding Over Frisbee

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