Grab a Frisbee and a few friends and you’ve got yourself a game of Ultimate. But get serious about it, and maybe the sport can bring together Israeli Jews, Arabs and Palestinian teenagers to become a meaningful effort toward peace in the ongoing Middle East conflict.
That’s what David Barkan did. Since 2009, his organization Ultimate Peace has been doing just that. Barkan spent 20 years playing competitive Ultimate, and in 2005 he took some Jewish Ultimate players to spend a few weeks in Israel to introduce the sport to kids, hold clinics, and play in tournaments.
“When I came back from Israel it became obvious to me that we needed to use this as a peace-building tool,” Barkan said. “I could see it had an effect on the kids that we worked with.”
From that, Ultimate Peace was born.
“The idea was simple,” Barkan said. “You bring them together, with Ultimate as the tool, to build bridges of understanding across the cultures, across the borders, with the hope that they not only enjoy playing Ultimate, and playing Ultimate together, but potentially change and transform, and become friends.”
Sixteen of these coaches in training, or CITs, who create new teams in their home communities as well as coach the players, visited Seattle during the last weekend of April, both to compete at Spring Reign in Burlington, the largest youth Ultimate tournament in the world, and to talk about the program.
One of those players, Areen Shihade, 16, is an Arab Israeli girl from the northern Israeli town of Tamira and a budding leader in Ultimate Peace. Before she joined the group, she would quickly become angry, she said, but Ultimate has helped control her temper. She attributes her newfound calm to one unique aspect of the sport: “In the game, there is no referee, so we have to deal with our little problems on the field,” she said.
The self-refereeing aspect to Ultimate is what Barkan, who said that he too was once hot-headed on the playing field, sees as the key to a successful program.
“Soccer wouldn’t have worked,” he said. “The violence in it isn’t conducive to it, the fact that you can pull the guy’s shirt and elbow when the referee’s not looking. The whole point of this is personal accountability.”
If your opponent is also your referee, you have to figure out a solution on your own, he said, and that’s a skill that can be applied to daily life.
“They’ve already said that’s transferred to their lives outside: How they behave with their families, how they are interested in other sports, and what kind of students and citizens they are,” Barkan said.
Like the game itself, the Bay Area-based Ultimate Peace operates from the grassroots, relying upon donations and sponsorships to hold weeklong summer camps, pay its coaches, buy equipment and uniforms, and send its players to tournaments such as Spring Reign. More than 300 teens from the Middle East have participated in Ultimate Peace since its inception. While in Seattle, the senior rabbis and members of Temple Beth Am provided home hospitality and transportation.
Moses Rivkin, an Ultimate coach and teacher at University Prep in Seattle’s Northend, has been involved with Ultimate Peace since its inception and worked with the camp in Israel. The visiting CITs spoke at his school, as well as rode the bus from Seattle to Burlington with his students, where he could see how they interacted with each other.
“It was cool to see them plugging into each other’s earbuds and sitting in these close quarters together, laughing together, and talking about how their days had gone,” Rivkin said.
Several University Prep students that Rivkin coaches have since applied to the Ultimate Peace coach-in-training program at this summer’s camp, he said.
Though the Middle East kids talked to many groups about their program, they also came to play Ultimate. Spring Reign organizers were at the last minute able to seed MashUP, as the team calls itself, with the A-level high school teams, which ended up being the right call.
“They are so good. They would have rolled over the B division,” said Jeff Jorgenson, one of the directors of Spring Reign. “It was highly competitive, a lot of strong throws, a lot of big jumps, a lot of downfield — all the elements you want to checkbox in a quality Ultimate match.”
The team members talked about Ultimate Peace at the awards ceremony, but they spent plenty of time on the field intermingling with the other teams.
“It was emotional for me, because I’ve got so many games under my belt,” Jorgenson said, “to see that players from Ultimate Peace have come from such a troubled part of the world, where they can still rise up and play with respect for themselves, respect for their teammates, and remember the real victor in a game is how well you play if you give it your all.”
Asmaa Hijazi, a 16-year-old Arab Israeli from the town of Tamira, said the energies she has devoted to the program have been life changing. Hijazi first heard about Ultimate Peace’s weeklong camp two years ago and decided to attend because she was interested in the sport. It quickly became much more than a game.
“Just going through the camp, and having weekend practices, we talk about many things,” she said of her teammates. “We’re always talking about our lives… just as if I was in Tamira and I’d see Arab Muslims.”
Hijazi has been traveling to other towns, both Arab and Jewish, to teach the sport and to recruit kids to come to the camp. She said her family has noticed a change in her, in particular how she has gotten less temperamental.
“When they saw me getting involved in the program and the national team, they saw how much I love it, and how good it is,” she said.
For Elad Strasman, 16, a Jewish Israeli from the city of Ra’anana, being a part of the program “changed my perspective about Arabs and Palestinians,” he said. The former soccer player said that being a part of the leadership program has given him the courage to say something if one of his peers makes a disparaging remark about his newfound friends’ cultures.
The real test will occur in the coming years, when the first cohort of players and coaches-in-training leaves the nest and faces the high pressure of the military — or the receiving end of Israel’s military tactics. Barkan said Ultimate Peace hopes to get the Israelis who join the army to take advantage of a community-service program that would allow them to continue coaching. But Barkan hopes active duty will allow his players to see the ongoing conflict differently.
“If they have a relationship, they’re way more likely to do the right thing when these guys go in the army, and they go into the neighborhoods of the kids who are in their program,” he said. “Can you imagine how that’s going to be for them and how they’re going to think differently than the others around them would?”
That’s the hope of Barkan and Israel’s Ministry of Sport and Culture, which he said has embraced Ultimate Peace. What has become clear is what started as a modest program has become something more positive and fulfilling than its creators could have imagined.
“I’d be really happy about it if it was a cool week for some kids in the Middle East who wouldn’t have otherwise met each other,” said Rivkin, the University Prep teacher. “But to see these incredibly articulate CITs who’ve really grown up in the program, talking about how it changed their life, and coming here and talking to our students about how it changed their life and maybe touching them in some way, it’s a really profound thing for me. I’m glad it exists.”