Israeli visitors speak to students, play soccer to promote peace and religious tolerance

Four Jewish girls and four Arab girls from Israel spoke about the power of soccer in breaking down cultural barriers to social studies teacher Andrew Sonnabend’s AP Comparative Politics students today. The girls also participated in a soccer game after school with Whitman soccer players.

Students from Israel participate in a discussion in social studies teacher Andrew Sonnabend's AP Comparative Politics classes today. Four Jewish girls and four Arab girls visited. Photo by Gigi Silver.

The girls, between the ages of 12 and 15, are from Israel’s Mateh Yehuda region and are visiting D.C. March 2 to 9 as part of the 10-month Partnership 2Gether Program, which is funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

The Jewish Federation and the Mateh Yehuda region, along with the Peres Center for Peace in Israel, also created the Twinned Peace Sport Program, which is designed to promote peace, dispel stereotypes, encourage fitness and develop leadership skills.

The program uses soccer as a way to promote peace because it’s popular worldwide and is a cooperative sport, said Inbal Ben-Ezer, project manager of the Peres Center for Peace.

“We work on a smaller scale with soccer and the girls now,” Ben-Ezer said. “On a greater scale, we just have to go one step at a time to peace.”

Math teacher Susan Wildstrom, who has a contact at the Jewish Federation, suggested to social studies department head Robert Mathis that the girls visit Whitman.

To start the discussion, the girls and students rolled a soccer ball across the room to give people a chance to say something about themselves. Participant Latifa Barhum said that she was a normal student, just like the rest of the kids in the room.

“I’m a good student, I love America and I’ve been in this program for six years,” Barhum said. “I love being in this project with my best friends who are no different from  me. I share everything with them, even about cute boys.”

The girls also discussed conditions back home, where tensions between Jews and Arabs can turn into violence. Anton Goodman, the Jewish Agency Israel Engager Shaliach to the Federation, led the discussion in Sonnabend’s class and served as a translator.

“Before Sonia was in the program, when she heard someone speak Arabic publicly, she felt nervous, like she had to be worried around them,” Goodman translated for program participant Sonia Nikitin. “After the program, she knows the girls on a deeper level, and since she has Arabic frends, when she hears Arabic spoken, she doesn’t have to be afraid because Arabs are just like her.”

After school today, the girls played Whitman soccer players in a game at Pyle. The girls use soccer as a way to break down social barriers. Photo by Gigi Silver.

Because of the ongoing conflict in Israel, the program is controversial, Ben-Ezer said. The girls themselves can sometimes face social consequences from others for participating in the program.

“I must say that each one of these girls in the program pays a social price because they are taking a challenge that many people don’t take upon themselves,” Ben-Ezer said. “You have to prove others wrong every time, and you have to fight and believe in your challenge.”

After school, the eight girls participated in a soccer game at Pyle Middle School with members of Whitman’s JV and varsity soccer teams.

“Having been born in Israel, I know a little about the cultural and religious hostility that exists in some areas there,” said junior Andrea McDonald, a varsity soccer player. “I think this soccer game was a really great idea not only because it promotes cultural tolerance and acceptance but also because it’s a relatable and fun way to bring people together.”

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