Stiff-necked in a nearly empty span of grass, seven Palestinians and seven Israelis stare at each other. They are not hiding; they stand in the open, with no rocks or rockets leveled at their opponents. All is still.
As if on cue, one Israeli raises an arm. In response, a youth from the Palestinian side cocks his arm back and throws a projectile as hard as he can.
These kids didn’t come to fight; instead, they’re here to spend the summer making friends and playing sports at a program called Ultimate Peace.
Initially conceived by David Barkan, the program aims to not only teach the sport of ultimate frisbee—which, requiring no more equipment than one disc and some empty space, is a sport well suited for even economically-disadvantaged kids—but also something far more important: understanding.
A post on Ultimate Peace’s website notes:
The idea emanated from a trip to Israel...by an All-Star Ultimate team. While excited by the significant momentum generated in the world of Israeli Ultimate by facilitating clinics and a tournament, the Americans were dismayed by the realization that Ultimate was not being played in the neighboring Arab and Palestinian sporting communities. Members of the team wondered what it would be like to have Arab and Israeli children sharing [a catch]... playing on a team cooperatively, and settling on-field disagreements collaboratively.
And there’s something to that. Ultimate frisbee is played entirely without referees.
Thus, all calls—fouls, complete/incomplete pass rulings, in- and out-of-bounds calls—must be decided by the players themselves. This forces all players, even while competing with one another, to learn to practice the sport within the bounds of fair play and mutual respect at all times.
Given the nature of the conflict between the larger Arab/Palestinian and Israeli communities, it's interesting that a grassroots effort such as this is being made to bring ultimate peace...to the Middle East.
“The striking thing to me at this point is what an extraordinary bunch of humans are committed to the organization, to the kids, and to each other,” notes coach Sarah Van Wagenen. “They love ultimate. They love each other. They love the kids they work with."
She continued, “How can that kind of love and dedication not change the world?”
Though it is tempting to discount such a sentiment as pie-in-the-sky idealism, take note: At Ultimate Peace, campers not only play against members of other ethnic groups, but with them.
Palestinian, Arab-Israeli or Jewish; male or female—it doesn’t matter. These kids may enter at opposing ends of the geopolitical spectrum, but over the weeks of the program, they become something very different: contemporaries. Teammates. Friends.
Notes Van Wagenen:
We saw it again this week as a girl on my team transformed from someone who was afraid that Arabs would steal her stuff at camp to congratulating her mostly Arab team and telling them how much she loved them on the last day. It is amazing.
Indeed, successfully bridging the Israeli-Palestinian divide has long seemed an insurmountable task.
And yet, it seems that Ultimate Peace is not only teaching these multi-ethnic kids a sport but a means of communicating with people heretofore seen as enemies. If Ultimate Peace grows and continues to be successful, it could indeed unarguably change the world to an unprecedented degree.
And to think: The kind of understanding and mutual acceptance that has failed to be reached over 65 years of outreach and political maneuvering is in fact being forged in just a few summer evenings across an ultimate frisbee field.
For more information on Ultimate Peace, visit: www.ultimatepeace.org.
Eric Brach is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first hand.