Australian football brings together a Peace Team of Israelis and Palestinians

posted at 6:30 pm on September 5, 2011 by Tina Korbe

College football officially kicked off this weekend: Die-hard fans revived rivalries, powerhouse programs trumped their token opening-weekend competitors and, in synch with the general celebratory mood, the summer heat subsided in many places into the mellow splendor of fall. It’s all deliciously familiar — and puts political partisan divides in perspective. Who cares who is conservative or liberal? What really matters is what conference you count as the best (the SEC, clearly). Kidding — kinda.

But, in Australia, unlikely teammates play a different brand of the game — and, in the process, prove the power of sports to unite:

“We’re the scariest team to fight against because we’ve got Israelis and Palestinians together,” says [Israeli soldier Yonatan] Belik, who together with his 25 teammates—known collectively as the Peace Team—was in Australia to take on rivals from the U.S., Great Britain and 15 other countries in a tournament that ended August 27.

The Australian Football League, the sport’s governing body known as the AFL, has recently committed to help fund programs to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together to play football, and to support the Peace Team in training so they can participate in the next scheduled cup in Australia, in 2014. …

The idea for a Peace Team drawn from Israeli and Palestinian communities came by chance. Sydney mom Tanya Oziel was pestered by her then nine-year-old son to play Australian Rules after he struggled to develop an affinity for traditional sports such as soccer or basketball. …

Early on, Ms. Oziel reached out to organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories—the Peres Center for Peace and the Al-Quds Association for Democracy & Dialogue, respectively—to mobilize their communities. …

The scale of the challenge quickly became apparent. Several aspiring players thought they were turning up to soccer training, and left. Those that did stay[ed] huddled in their ethnic groups, eyeing each other suspiciously. Afterwards, two of the most talented Palestinian players were criticized so heavily for fraternizing with Israelis that their families barred them from attending again. …

Within days, however, a team ethic began to emerge. Complicated issues, like which national anthem should be played, were resolved, with the team deciding to write and record their own song.

That last tidbit especially struck me — they wrote and recorded their own song as a way around the anthem issue. How cool is that? No, the Peace Team doesn’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but it does serve as an important reminder of our shared humanity, the satisfaction we experience when we come together in pursuit of a shared goal — even, perhaps especially, when that goal is a sports championship.

FWIW, the entire WSJ article is well worth the read.

 


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