Playing for peace

Professor says sports participation eases Arab-Israeli tensions

Michael Leitner says more positive news is needed about Arab-Israeli relations.

Michael Leitner says more positive news is needed about Arab-Israeli relations.

Photo By vic cantu

Can bringing together Israeli and Arab youth to play sports like basketball and soccer help to ease the entrenched territorial disputes and violent attacks and retaliation in the Middle East? Chico State professor Michael Leitner thinks so.

Leitner gave a talk, video show and musical performance on Tuesday afternoon (April 16) at Chico State explaining how engaging in mutual sports and recreational programs could foster peace in the region.

“I’m a recreation teacher and I like it, but these programs could mean the difference between life and death,” said Leitner, a professor in the Recreation, Hospitality and Parks Management Department.

Leitner, who doesn’t propose any specific Middle East political solution, told a packed auditorium of about 150 in Chico State’s Ayres Hall that he has studied and researched the peacemaking powers of several sports and recreation programs upon Arabs and Jews for nearly 20 years. The results show a marked increase in mutual trust and decrease in the hatred they had for each other before entering these programs.

“Arab kids learned that the Israeli kids didn’t hate them anywhere near as much as they thought, and vice versa,” he said.

Leitner’s presentation, titled “Mitigating the Arab-Israeli Conflict, One Goal at a Time,” highlighted three such programs. The Mifalot project organizes Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian youth into mixed soccer teams once a month for 10 months; the Friendship Games bring together college-age teams from several Middle Eastern and European countries to play basketball and interact socially for one week; and the third program, the Peres Center for Peace (named after current Israeli president, former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres), employs Israelis and Arabs in sports and the arts to create camaraderie.

All three programs, said Leitner, have proven effective when the groups mix nationalities. They showed a vast improvement in the attitudes of these lifelong enemies toward each other. Many remarked that the program was the most significant experience of their life, he said.

Leitner said one initial survey of the participants revealed that 7 percent trusted the other side. In another, just 2 percent reported having that trust. However, in exit surveys the percentages rose to 40 percent.

“It’s not going to solve the problem,” Leitner wrote in a press release. “What this is about is to lay the foundations for peaceful relations to become the norm and for peace to become the norm.”

During his talk, Leitner lamented tragedies such as the 9/11 attacks and this week’s Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 170. But he noted that the events are a small taste of the terrorism Israel has suffered over the years.

“Israel has one-fortieth the population of the U.S,” he said. “So to get a better picture of what its people have endured, try multiplying the deaths of the U.S. attacks by 40.”

To show the animosity that some countries have toward the United States, Leitner introduced a woman he’d met by chance three days prior. Whitney Popp of Chico said she spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Jordanian village. She said one of the women there told her, “You are OK, but I want to have four children so they can kill Americans.”

Leitner didn’t end his talk with those discouraging words.

“I’ll leave you on a high note,” said Leitner as he picked up a guitar and led the audience in a sing-along of an Israeli peace song called “Salaam” that mixes both Hebrew and Arabic words, which he projected on a screen.

After his talk Leitner explained that, although he’s Jewish, he first came to live extensively in Israel for a year in 1994. That is when he discovered that Israel had more than 100 Arab and Israeli peace-coordinating projects that ranged from cooking to dancing and even making mutual pornography videos—a project that was shortly discontinued.

“You never hear about these in the media because they only print the bad news,” he said.

However, Leitner found that these programs didn’t track the results, which started him on his research mission. One of the best outcomes happened last year, when the Mifalot program, which had 1,000 participants, received a $1 million grant to expand to 40,000 participants over three years.

“We’re talking about a major change in people’s attitudes,” Leitner said. “If we could reach 450,000 kids, that would be even better.”