How PeacePlayers International Uses Basketball to Unite Divided Communities
Pessimism abounds as Israeli and Palestinian leaders prepare to resume US-backed peace talks next week.
But government action isn’t the only answer to the region’s problems. PeacePlayers International, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001, is helping to create sustainable peace through grassroots efforts. Its programs in Israel and the West Bank bring together Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze children to play basketball and develop mutual respect and understanding.
Former World Views research fellow Jack Randolph recently began working with PeacePlayers in Tel Aviv. He says that teaching conflict resolution through sports is effective and fun.
“You are bridging divides and breaking down barriers by competing against another team,” Randolph says. “Everyone on your team, they start to become your friends naturally.”
Randolph says that most of the 40 PeacePlayers basketball teams in Israel and the Palestinian Territories aren’t integrated religiously. Once a month, though, PeacePlayers hosts camps called “twinnings” that bring together several teams and give youth from different backgrounds the opportunity to interact constructively.
“During these camps they'll play different games that can hopefully make the kids think about the way they view the world and the way they view people – people as people or people as objects,” Randolph says. “And the idea is for them to change within themselves and then to play basketball.”
PeacePlayers has programs in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus in addition to Israel and the West Bank. Collectively they have reached more than 52,000 children. PeacePlayers has plans to expand even further. It currently has representatives in Brazil, Ethiopia, Yemen, Croatia, Central Asia, and Chicago who are teaching others how achieve peace with basketball.
"We have a solution for you,” Randolph says. “Let us come in and teach you how to do it and then you can do it yourself."
On playing American football in Tel Aviv
My football team, it was really the one team that had Arabs and Jews playing alongside one another, which was fantastic. You know, I would be having an Arab feast in Jaffa, the oldest port city in the world with some of my Arab Muslim friends, and then I'd be doing Shabbat dinner Friday night with one of my Israeli friends from the team. So it made it just kind of the ultimate cultural experience.
On experiencing the missile attacks in Tel Aviv in November 2012
Our assistant football coach was also head of missile defense at the US embassy. And he kind of tipped me off just saying, "Jack, be ready. And look at your emails from the embassy." And there was an email from the embassy for some reason that looked just like a standard email saying, "If there're ever sirens if you're in Tel Aviv, you have 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter." And I was like, okay, well, I guess I'll take note of that. Sure enough, later that night, maybe it was six or seven o'clock, I hear a siren. I'm down the street from my apartment and my heart just starts pounding. That means there's a missile coming at my city.
On the Israeli mentality
Part of the Israeli mentality is you're always surrounded by danger, and you always keep working through it. You have to live your normal life if you want to be successful. And in a way, the Israelis want to act like "whatever you do, you're not going to stop us" so not to give you any more reason to keep doing it. It's kind of like when my brother used to steal my hat and my mom used to say, "Just ignore him, Jack, and he'll stop doing it."
On security in Israel
I was so surprised. I don't know if I've ever felt safer. If you're a girl alone at night in Tel Aviv, you have no reason to feel danger walking, you know, 15 minutes across town back to your apartment. I don't know, you know, the Israelis like to describe it as, I don't know if this is a politically correct thing to say, but they will shamelessly say, "You know, because we have the Arabs, we can get along with each other."
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jack Randolph, welcome back to World Views.
RANDOLPH: Thank you, Suzette.
GRILLOT: You're a recent OU grad, but you have a long history with us. You served as a research fellow with the College of International Studies and actually worked as a production assistant here at World Views, booking some of our interviews and doing some research to help us conduct the interviews, so it's a real pleasure to have you back on the program now as an expert.
RANDOLPH: Thanks, Suzette.
GRILLOT: So, you've spent the last year living and working in Israel. It's an interesting choice to go off to Israel and spend a year having not been there before or really having studied the area. What were you doing over there?
RANDOLPH: So what took me to Israel specifically was to play American football for the Kraft Family Israeli Football League, where I'm proud to say we went 12-0, the first undefeated champions in league history.
GRILLOT: Well, congratulations on that. But American football in Israel. Wow. That is kind of a shock. How did that happen?
RANDOLPH: Yeah. It was a shock to me, but I heard about it through a friend of mine who had done it a couple years before and had helped to actually help start the youth league associated with it. When I talk about Kraft, I'm talking about Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots who has now been sponsoring the league for six years. And it's really exciting to be a part of a sport I'm passionate about in a totally new market. It's kind of been an entrepreneurship thing as well. That's kind of the specific reason, but I had so many reasons that I wanted to go to Israel. It's one of the most fascinating spots in the world because of the heat of the conflict, the history, the religious history, the three Abrahamic faiths there, the start-up culture in Tel Aviv, and, for me, on my football team it was really the one team that had Arabs and Jews playing alongside one another, which was fantastic. You know, I would be having an Arab feast in Jaffa, the oldest port city in the world with some of my Arab Muslim friends, and then I'd be doing Shabbat dinner Friday night with one of my Israeli friends from the team. So it made it just kind of the ultimate cultural experience for me to dive right into Israel and already have this group of friends.
GRILLOT: Well, you were clearly there at a very interesting time at well last year, given that there was some conflict that emerged. But you actually experienced rocket fire. There were some trying times while you were there. What was that like?
RANDOLPH: Yeah, it's true. I think it was something like the day after Halloween, I remember, and our assistant football coach was also head of missile defense at the US embassy. And he kind of tipped me off just saying, "Jack, be ready. And look at your emails from the embassy." And there was an email from the embassy for some reason that looked just like a standard email saying, "If there're ever sirens if you're in Tel Aviv, you have 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter." And I was like, okay, well, I guess I'll take note of that. Sure enough, later that night, maybe it was six or seven o'clock, I hear a siren. I'm down the street from my apartment and my heart just starts pounding. That means there's a missile coming at my city.
GRILLOT: Because clearly it's not a tornado siren like you're used to here in Oklahoma.
RANDOLPH: Clearly. Right, normally it's a tornado, but all of a sudden, wait a second, I'm not in Oklahoma anymore. There aren't tornadoes here. Someone is shooting something to try to do some damage to this city, and am I going to be in harm's way? So I start sprinting back to my apartment, going to the bomb shelter, and the city was just abuzz after that because it was the first time there had been sirens in Tel Aviv since the Gulf War in '91 when Saddam had sent rockets into Tel Aviv. So it was a big deal, but the excitement quickly subsided as things do in Israel. Part of the Israeli mentality is you're always surrounded by danger, and you always keep working through it. You have to live your normal life if you want to be successful. And in a way, the Israelis want to act like "whatever you do, you're not going to stop us" so not to give you any more reason to keep doing it. It's kind of like when my brother used to steal my hat and my mom used to say, "Just ignore him, Jack, and he'll stop doing it." You know, or something like that.
GRILLOT: I think that's the thing that's most remarkable to me having just been to Israel myself. We know there's kind of this latent conflict always present there, tension, difficulties, struggles, but you're there and it just seems... it's really hard to detect. There are definitely things that happen that are of a violent nature occasionally, but for the most part everyone's just living their lives. It's so stable. I think that's really what was incredibly remarkable to me. Is that kind of how you experienced it too? Was that a surprise or shock to you while you were there?
RANDOLPH: I was so surprised. I don't know if I've ever felt safer. If you're a girl alone at night in Tel Aviv, you have no reason to feel danger walking, you know, 15 minutes across town back to your apartment. I don't know, you know, the Israelis like to describe it as, I don't know if this is a politically correct thing to say, but they will shamelessly say, "You know, because we have the Arabs, we can get along with each other." They can be united in the fact that you see less homicide, probably, in Israel. You hear about less petty crime than you do, maybe, you know generally in the States or in Europe, because you have such a focus on your enemies at the border. It's not to say that there's no theft and that there's no danger at all, because there is. But it's really true. It's so funny because everyone is asking me, and especially my mom, you know, "Are you safe?" And then my mom comes to visit me, and afterwards, you know, there's not another peep. You know, she sees that it feels very secure. And it's a very strange thing based on our perceptions.
GRILLOT: What we read, and what we hear, and what we perhaps even see on the news, it doesn't seem to square with what you see on the ground in Israel.
GRILLOT: Well, I think this certainly relates to the work that you're going to be doing when you go back. You're about to return to Israel, and you will be participating in this organization, you've gotten a job with this organization, called PeacePlayers International. Tell us a little bit about that organization and how it relates to this notion of cross-borders. You know when you mentioned we've got the Arabs, okay, so we've got this conflict. What does this organization do that perhaps helps resolve some of that conflict?
RANDOLPH: They're a US nonprofit that does conflict resolution through basketball. So they started in Northern Ireland and they've spread to South Africa, Cyprus, and the Middle East. And that is where I'm going to be working. So, what they do, their kind of "special sauce." I was just learning in a training in Washington, D.C. recently that they focus on this anatomy of peace from the Arbinger Institute that says, "It's not about your actions, it's something deeper. It's your way of being. It's when you look at a person, do you view them as a person, or do you view them as an object?" And this is their aim. It's a very indirect, bottom up aim. A grassroots movement to spread conflict resolution indigenously. And what PeacePlayers will do in the country is focus on basketball. So they try to hire the best basketball coaches for six-year-olds to 18-year-olds. They're working with schools and club teams, just depending on how the sport works within the country. And in Israel, they're associated with 40 of these different teams. Five of the teams are mixed, so you have Arabs and Jews on the same team. With the other teams, they're not mixed, so what they do is once a month they have a "twinning," which is kind of a workshop/basketball camp where they bring several teams together. They'll bring Jewish teams and Arab teams. Sometimes there're even Arab Christians teams or Druze teams, it's another religion. And during these camps they'll play different games that can hopefully make the kids think about the way they view the world, the way they view people -- people as people or people as objects. And the idea is for them to change within themselves and then to play basketball with people, it's like the movie Remember the Titans where you are bridging divides and breaking down barriers by competing against another team. You know, everyone on your team, they start to become your friends naturally. And what happens on a lot of teams, like my football team in Tel Aviv, is some of the guys will think, "You know, I love Mohammad" or something, but is that the same thing? Does he also love all the Palestinians? Well, that's a big jump. But hopefully that is a jump that will start to begin to happen.
GRILLOT: Slowly but surely, they're developing a sense of camaraderie, a sense of solidarity. They're starting to see their teammates and other team players as individuals and not as Palestinians or Jews or whatever in any other part of the world through that sports interaction that creates that sense of community and sense of belonging. So how do we know that that really works? I mean, what's the evidence? This is a new organization, but this idea of sports camps or sports interactions, sports diplomacy if you will, right? Where you take youth in particular and you bring them together to play soccer, or in this case basketball, that they do ultimately to come to extend that sense of seeing that teammate from another culture, another background as a person, that it extends to, as you said, all Palestinians? It goes from Mohammad to all Palestinians? What do we know about that?
RANDOLPH: Right. So we know. We've conducted qualitative research. PeacePlayers has, and other organizations out there that are doing sports peace programs have, and have found positive results that show that sports and peace does make a difference. Sports and conflict resolution does make a difference. However, one really exciting thing for PeacePlayers is right now they're in the process of conducting a randomized control trial, an RCT, which is going to produce quantitative data about how successful PeacePlayers is doing, how much conflict they're actually resolving, what difference is it making in the kids’ lives, they're going to be able to produce data with numbers. And we know that in the world we live in, especially when you're talking about fundraising, data makes a big difference. And data can make people move a lot quicker than just reading the qualitative stuff. So it's really exciting. It's two researchers from NYU that are conducting this trial and so the data won't be out for a couple years, but it has potential to make a big change. And another arm of PeacePlayers is where they go to different countries around the world, they're in Brazil, in Rio, they're in Ethiopia, in Yemen, in Croatia, in central Asia, in Chicago. In these cases, though, they don't have a formal program going on. But what they're doing is they're sending in their representatives from PeacePlayers to teach others how to do peace in basketball. So it has this big idea, if we have the data, showing really anyone with conflict around the world, "We have a solution for you. And let us come in and teach you how to do it and then you can do it yourself."
GRILLOT: So the data will allow us then to generalize about the impact that this program can have, and we can implement it elsewhere around the world. I mean, clearly, intuitively, this makes sense. And like you said, we see it, we've seen the qualitative data, we know anecdotally. But it is going to be really interesting to see if we can establish any sort of long-term systematic understanding of how this type of approach affects conflict management because clearly conflict is going on all around the world. And if we can solve it with basketball, why not?
RANDOLPH: Why not?
GRILLOT: Well, Jack Randolph, it's such a pleasure to have you back here on World Views and back here in Oklahoma. We wish you the best. We're very proud of the work you're doing, and keep it up.
RANDOLPH: Thanks for having me, Suzette.
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