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The 2004 Olympics Israeli and Palestinian Children Chop Their Way to Understanding

July 29, 2004
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In matching white karate garb, Israeli and Palestinian youths kick, spin, jump in the air and softly land. The group, all students between the ages of 10 and 15, has taken to the mats for four days of intensive training near the temple where Greek legend says the Oracle of Delphi called for warriors to lay down their arms and compete on the athletic field instead.

The oracle’s vision led to the first Olympic Games; and last week the group of young Israelis and Palestinians, together with counterparts from another conflict zone — the Greek section of Cyprus — gathered in Delphi to learn about conflict resolution through the martial-arts values of respect and self-control.

The Festival of Budo, as organizers have dubbed the four-day gathering, came three weeks before the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which begin Aug. 13.

The Japanese word Budo is loosely translated as “martial arts,” but literally means “the way of stopping c! onflict.” The idea is that martial arts is not about fighting, but dealing with and controlling conflict both within oneself and with others.

The 16 participants may not speak the same language, but they share the language of the sport — its rituals and moves as well as the Japanese words of instruction they all learn — whether in a classes in a West Bank village, Tel Aviv or Greek Cyprus.

“We all practice the same martial art, we communicate in Japanese, the orders our masters tell us we all understand. When they tell us to do something we do it together and it looks amazing,” said Daniel Belik, 12, a green belt in karate from Ra’anana, a Tel Aviv suburb.

The trip, in which the students are taught by Japanese martial-arts masters, was sponsored by the Japanese government and the Peres Center for Peace. It was organized by the Institute of World Affairs in Washington and Budo for Peace, an Israel-based organization founded by Australian-born Danny Hakim, a six! th-degree black belt who immigrated to Israel after 10 years of studyi ng martial arts in Japan.

“The idea was for kids to get together and break down two important elements in conflict — ignorance and fear. Ignorance is about the other, the idea that all Palestinians are terrorists or kids that throw rocks and that all Palestinians think Israelis want to lock them up,” Hakim told JTA in a phone interview from Delphi. “By meeting kids the same age, doing the same budo, that disappeared.”

“When you are doing martial arts, you learn to deal with your own fear,” Hakim said, adding that “fear is a major element in conflict.”

“Here they can become friends and talk,” he said.

The program follows one launched a few years ago, after Hakim approached another Israeli, Amos Davidowitz, director of Israel and Palestine projects at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington.

Davidowitz staged OlymPeace events that brought 250 12-year-olds and 100 educators from 15 countries to Greece in 2001 and 2003 for a multicultural peace program ba! sed on sports and arts.

Photographs of that program were exhibited at U.N. headquarters in New York.

For Nedaa Mahmoud, a 14-year-old girl from Issawiyah, a village of eastern Jerusalem, the recent event was the first time she interacted with Israelis her own age.

Mahmoud, who has a black belt in karate, said she was surprised at how well she got along with the Israelis — four of whom were Jewish and two who were Arab.

“They are not as we always told they are,” she said. “Some were really nice and loving people.”

Belik, one of the Israeli youths, said meeting his Palestinian counterparts made him think about things differently.

“I learned from other side of the coin,” Belik said. “What we think, what we see in Israel is different from what the Palestinians see.”

(JTA correspondent Jean Cohen in Athens contributed to this report.)

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