Posted by Jack Chrapot on 28 February 2011 at 6:25am:
Most of you would have noticed the recent return of AFL football and the fact that it didn’t take long for our television screens and our newspapers to be filled with news of the exploits both on and off the field of the heroes and villains of the game whether they be Saints or Demons, Magpies or Swans or the latest additions to the retinue – Suns and Giants. If someone in this country ever took a poll on the subject it would come as no surprise that footballers are more popular in this country than politicians, scientists, artists, bank managers (I’m relying on the fact that mine doesn’t read this) and yes, even religious figures.
While our brand of football is the nation’s most popular spectator sport and attracts hundreds of thousands of participants of all ages, shapes and sizes, our game transcends the heroic exploits of its athletes and the salacious conduct of the “bad boys” who generate so much publicity. This is because at the very heart of the sport there are also some uplifting stories of courage and hope that are rarely told.
The story of the AFL ‘Peace Team’ is one of them.
In 2008 a team comprising Palestinians and Israelis came to Australia for an international tournament. Sixteen teams from Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and the Americas contested the Australian Football International Cup but this one team was unique.
The brainchild of Sydney woman Tanya Oziel and a product of the combined efforts of the Peres Center of Peace and the Al Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue, the aim of the Peace Team is to break down barriers dividing people in an area that has endured more than a century of conflict by bringing them together through sport.
The Peace Team’s twenty-six AFL participants (there are Peace Teams in other sports as well), half Israeli and half Palestinian took part in the tournament and received the support of Jewish and Muslim communities in this country. The lads were coached by Hawthorn’s legendary Robert “Dipper” DiPierdomenico who later made the rare admission for a footballer with such a tough guy image of having shed a tear when he considered the importance of the team’s mission. They really were playing more than just a game.
I came to support the Peace Team for its opening game against Great Britain at an oval in inner suburban Brunswick which ironically is not far from where my parents came to live after the horrors of wartime Europe among what was then a closely knit little Jewish community. Further waves of migration brought Italians and Greeks and today, the area has a thriving community from the Middle East. Arabic lettering adorns the shopfronts where long ago my parents bought kosher food.
The game itself passed without much incident apart from a lone protester who embarrassed himself by brandishing a sign saying “Apartheid Israel” (in front of him was the antithesis of Apartheid – go figure?) and the usual cuts and bruises that are part and parcel of the game.
When the outgunned (pardon my poor word selection) Peace Team finally scored a goal it provided one of the highlights of all my years as a watcher of Australian footy. To see Israeli and Palestinian kids hugging each other, smiling and enjoying this seemingly modest achievement really brought a tear to the eye. I’m sorry I missed their victory later in the tournament.
A documentary film about the Peace Team, “Tackling Peace,” by Australian director Marc Radomsky won the Provincia Di Milano Award for Outstanding Film, and the Mention D’Honneur in the Sport & Society category of Sports Film Awards held in Milan, Italy last year. It tells of the trials and tribulations of the organisers and the participants and how they worked hard together in their quest to reject notions that lead to intolerance, bigotry and tensions in communities.
The film looks at some of the complex issues facing those who must live with the conflict, with the barbed wire, the checkpoints, the fear of terrorism, the attempted delegitimisation of the other and of the bravery of some of the players who defied opponents of the team. I have been told that for some of the Palestinians this went as far as having to endure threats to their families if they remained in the team.
One of the founders of the Al Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue was once jailed for activites against Israeli soldiers but that was back in the “bad old” days and he now rejects violence in favour of seeking reconciliation, peace and harmony among the region’s peoples.
The recent release of what were termed the “Palestine Papers” demonstrated the possibility that Israeli and Palestinian leaders can sit down and negotiate concessions in the hope of bringing about peace in the region. It’s true that they failed in their efforts this time and the cause is not being helped by the shameful manipulation of the story behind the peace talks from those in the media whose agenda is to support the rejectionist elements in the equation. However, the need to prepare the region for peace in the future is clear and it can only be enhanced by initiatives that promote tolerance and the ability for people to listen to each other. Initiatives such as the Peace Team.
At a recent function at the Whitten Oval, the AFL’s international ambassador, Brett Kirk (recently retired Sydney Swans captain) announced that the Peace Team is back in training and is slated to return to Australia for the next International Cup in August this year. The team deserves our wholehearted support.
The concept of the Peace Team has also spawned a round robin competition involving many of our local communities in an Australian Federal Police initiative that aims to strengthen the ties between the Muslim and other communities including the Jewish community. It has the backing of the AFL Multicutural Program, Victoria Police, Maccabi Victoria and the Islamic Council of Victoria. The AJAX Football Club is helping put together the Jewish team and it is hoped that with games played on Sundays, it will attract some of Orthodox members of the community who otherwise cannot participate in the game.
The competition will also involve Muslim teams and an Indigenous Australian team.
The past month has seen a grass roots movement in the Arab and Muslim world rise up against tyrannical leaders who have kept them poor and often fed them with a diet of antisemitism and Israel bashing while discriminating against Palestinian Arabs in their midst and keeping them in an abject state of poverty. Corrupt and unpopular leaders in Tunisia and Egypt have fallen and the Libyan madman who the world last year celebrated with the highest honours of the United Nations Human Rights Council, will soon be gone and nobody will shed any tears for him.
There are some good and bad signs in these developments but it is hoped that the people might consider the words I found on the Al Quds Association website that come from 16 year old Palestinian boy Husam who says:
“Peace is possible in the world we live in today, sport unites us; it doesn’t separate us. Our project shows the whole world that Palestinians and Israelis live together, that they can be friends and allies, despite what other people say. My love for sport is like breathing, I cannot live without it. My dream is to become a famous football player. I want to establish football clubs for disadvantaged and mentally challenged children.”
Jack Chrapot is a Melbourne lawyer. He travels to the region next week and hopes to catch a Peace Team training session. He will be back in time to watch the Demons beat the Swans in Round One
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