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On the soccer field, peace is a goal

Interfaith summer programs aim to build relationships, find common ground and break the cycle of violence

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Campers at Soccer for Peace. (photo credit: courtesy image)
Campers at Soccer for Peace. (photo credit: courtesy image)

In the midst of bitter violence between Israel and Hamas this summer, and explosively high tensions between Jews and Arabs across Israel, a handful of interfaith programs for local and foreign kids have offered a touch of hope that the next generation of Jews and Arabs might be able to change history’s course.

From August 3 to 6, at the Nir HaEmek Youth Village, 80 Jewish and Arab children between the ages of 11 and 13 found some serious common ground in the form of the soccer field.

The kids stayed at Nir HaEmek, which is in the Wadi Ara region of Israel, for four days and three nights, practicing soccer in addition to taking cultural field trips. Mostly, however, the focus was on them talking to each other.

They can get to know each other, they can play together, they can laugh together, and if they succeed they succeed together and if they lose they lose together,” says Eihab Kadach, the camp’s educational consultant.

The camp, which is called Goals of Peace, is sponsored by Soccer for Peace, a New York based nonprofit that uses soccer to foster dialogue between children in war-torn areas.

The camp also included a trip to both a synagogue and a mosque so the kids could have a peek at each others’ religious practices.

And in Jerusalem this summer, 99 kids from the Kids4Peace movement, an interfaith youth movement that links Jews, Christians and Muslims together in Israel’s capital, are meeting counterparts from American summer camps also committed to dialogue and coexistence.

Kids4Peace links kids together starting in the sixth grade, fostering long-term friendships across racial and social lines throughout adolescence. This month, the youth group’s annual summer camp is hosting kids from Seattle, Houston, Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as bringing together Israelis and Palestinians in the 8th grade at Kibbutz Ketura north of Eilat.

After weeks of war and violent signs of deepening rifts across Jerusalem, participants said the camp was giving them home.

“I still go to camp to prove that Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Christians and Jews can coexist and get together and talk about what they are feeling. We get together to talk, listen, respect and above all – to try and understand each other,” says Emmanuel, a 15-year-old Jewish participant.

Reeham Subhi, Kids4Peace’s Jerusalem co-director of education, says that the summer program offered a glimmer of hope in an incredibly dark month.

“I feel happy for real, for the first time in weeks,” Subhi said. “The kids are so excited. You don’t feel any anger between them now, just excitement and relief.”

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