A "coexistence delegation" of eight soccer players made up of four Israeli girls and four Arab girls visited Walt Whitman high school last week as part of the Partnership 2Gether program. Partnership 2Gether is a Jewish Federation of Greater Washington program that connects Jewish communities in the area with communities in Israel, specifically the Mateh Yehuda-Bet Shemesh region located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The girls are all participants in the Peres Center for Peace's Twinned Peace Sport Program which serves to break down barriers between Arab and Israeli teens through sports such as soccer and basketball. The program, which is 10 months long and has 40 participants, ages 12-15, was created to promote coexistence and diffuse the stereotypes that have separated the Jews and Arabs for years.
The coexistence delegation got the chance to sit down with two groups of Walt Whitman students in sessions facilitated by Anton Goodman, the Jewish Agency Israel Engager Shaliach to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, to learn more about one another and break down the many existing preconceptions about the Arab-Israeli relationship.
At the start of the session, Goodman explained that while there may be an Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, "there isn't one in this room. We hope to create a ripple effect in society and create social leaders to carry out our vision of what Israel can be," he said. "We're making connections here, and we hope to start to see a local change that can have a global influence."
Inbal Ben-Ezer, the project manager at the Peres Center for Peace, explained the reason behind using sports as a way to form connections between these girls who mainly hail from the Israeli village of Ein Karem and the Arab village of Ein Rafa.
"We're trying to bring people together through common interests because we know that it doesn't happen organically, we don't connect or interact. By using sports, the ball gives us that opportunity, it's a little oasis of peace," she said.
Latifa Barhum, 15, has been a participant at the Peres Center for Peace for five years, starting off playing basketball and then switching to soccer two years ago. Barhum, who is Muslim, said that although she never imagined she would have Jewish friends, she now couldn't picture her life without them.
"These girls are my best friends, they are my sisters. We're the same and we share everything, and I really love them," she said. Barhum added that she grew up surrounded by many preconceptions about Jewish people, but always wanted to form her own opinions instead of listening to the age-old stereotypes.
"I had heard these things about Jewish people my entire life and being a part of the Peres Center for Peace completely changed my mind. I wanted my own opinion and I wanted to judge for myself, and the project allowed me to make my own opinion."
Ben-Ezer explained that the girls not only play soccer but go through relationship building sessions to create lasting friendships.
"As the girls continue with the project, they go through trust building that helps them understand one another. We hope that through the girls, their families will start to believe in what we're doing as well," she said. "We know the girls have paid a social price for being a part of the program and taking a challenge, but they did it because it's something they strongly believe in."
Wendy Rudolph, co-chair of Partnership 2Gether, said that seeing the girls share their stories with the students from Walt Whitman brought tears to her eyes as, "this program really stands on its own and has such an impact on their lives and on their families lives. We're so happy that we were able to bring the delegation here to show them our community and to have students from our community meet them."
After the sessions at the high school, the girls took to the Pyle Middle School soccer field to play a scrimmage game against the Walt Whitman junior varsity girls soccer team.
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