By Alvin Ma
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
The above quotation from the noted anti-apartheid former South African President Nelson Mandela is how we want to view sports. At a time when the “Road Map for Peace” has not yet been settled, this video showing former American President Bill Clinton’s lighthearted rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” with 40 Jewish and 40 Arab children is how we want to view the relationship among Israeli Jews, Arabs in Israel, the Palestinian territories, the rest of the Middle East, and the world. However, as much as my conflict-averse self yearns for perpetual peace, I also recognize that I am an outsider. As such, I cannot fully comprehend the complexity of this situation from people in these regions of instability. With that being said, I still hope to critically analyze the goals of “Neutral Zone: The Story of Hockey in Northern Israel,” a short 24-minute documentary by Michael Farber which recently aired on TSN.
As the title suggests, the documentary shows the use of hockey as a tool to achieve peace in the Middle East by featuring participants at the ice rink in Metula, an Israeli town bordering Lebanon. While ambitious in planning, a tinge of realism still grounds its immediate macroscopic effectiveness. Canada-Israel Hockey School coach Mike Mazeika states bluntly that hockey alone cannot be the sole solution to peace in the Middle East, but only the necessary “small steps” for a future “big step.” The mission of this program, according to Mazeika, is to “integrate Jewish and Arab kids together playing hockey so that they can understand each other and make a difference for the future.”
While relatively novel to use hockey, the concept of sport for development in the Middle East is not a new phenomenon. I’m reminded of the 2006 documentary “Children of Jordan Valley” by Simon Jocker where similarly, Jewish and Arab children are integrated through summer soccer camps. Jocker’s documentary, as seen in the trailer above, also features the transformation of children through social interaction similar to the friendships developed by Bez twins and Mayyas Sabbagh in “Neutral Zone.” Despite following one team to its championship victory, Jocker highlights the disappearance of some of these friendships as time passes. On a follow-up visit to conclude the “Children of Jordan Valley” documentary, some children who return to their homes after their soccer camps finish merely revert back to their former ways of life, separated into their ethnic communities.
Although the phrase “children become friends” is heavily emphasized in “Neutral Zone,” with Mazeika and Canada-Israel Hockey School manager Levav Weinberg projecting that future generations will continue to develop bonds by playing hockey, growth is not guaranteed unless if the desire and infrastructure are present to expand to other places in Israel and the rest of the Middle East. While Farber is mindful enough to include girls’ hockey in his documentary, the portrayal of the “inseparable” friendship between Noy Rosenberg and Bisan Maree is perhaps an overly-rosy outlook. I do not know these two girls, so I am in no position to judge their personal friendship. For other Jewish and Arab females who participate in the Metula hockey program, however, even in the age of social media, I am not certain if they can maintain these close relationships as they grow up and have other tasks that occupy their time.
While the Druze-abundant community of Majdal Shams is not located too far away from Metula, due to its location to the north, participants from Arab-dominant communities to the southern lands under Israeli governance would have to travel for hours just to play ice hockey inside the only Olympic-sized rink in Israel. If growth in the program mission of cultural integration is to occur and culturally-mixed teams visit different arenas in towns of different ethnocultural demographics, one possible suggestion is to build more rinks throughout both Jewish and Arab dominant lands.
Realistically, the next question deals with funding. It is unlikely that media magnate Sidney Greenberg will grant more $37,000 cheques with “good luck” written on the memos. While individuals from Canadian Jewish groups funded the Canada Centre to spread Canadian culture in Metula in the 1990s as the Olympic-sized rink’s original building purpose, I don’t think financing more hockey rinks is a high priority for the Canadian Jewish community. If the realistic case is that hockey will remain exclusive to Metula as a temporary fad, then we need to question the time and cost of fundraising, and whether resources should be devoted to more sustainable activities and causes.
On a cynical level, I am reminded of stories from my sport-for-development classes where organizations would go to sub-Saharan Africa and introduce sports such as volleyball to a seemingly welcoming audience only to find out that after North American volunteers leave, the volleyball nets are utilized as fishing nets, the volleyballs are converted into lightweight soccer balls, and the customized uniforms are sold on the open market. In contrast, the best practices would involve a needs assessment reached by an inclusive community consensus and also contractual obligations from locals with varying degrees of authority to organize and maintain such a program.
Without consultation and a comprehensive strategy, it is easy to be perceived in a negative light as a culture-killing neocolonialist from multiple local groups even if the original intention of the intervention is for societal good. Consideration to the long-term prosperity of locals is imperative. If the goal is to continue this program for the long term, locals will ultimately be the ones in charge of maintenance and daily operations. Before then, a third-party mediator can assist with a guiding framework on equity in hiring employees associated with the hockey industry and also equity in ice time slots.
In another sport-for-peace program discussed in the Gasser and Levinsen (2004) article “Breaking post-war ice: Open fun schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” the “Open Fun Football School” concept has been relatively successful in their analysis in part due to its “twin city” buddy-buddy system that decentralizes control and program management to local leaders based on pre-agreed contractual obligations for peace and the sharing of venues and expenses. Without other hockey rinks from communities with different ethnicity demographics, this model of success cannot be directly replicated. However, with figures like the aforementioned local Levav Weinberg in charge of creating and managing the hockey school, this provides some optimism for local growth in the future. There is one quotation from Weinberg that stands out and arguably defines the functionalist strand that “Neutral Zone” tries to showcase:
“In hockey you have the boards and you have the zone. And when you go into the zone and you close the door, you’re in a different world. Now you have the coach. He’s your God. And you don’t need to pray to him a couple of times during the day. You just need to listen to what he tells you to do. And you have one goal: To win the game.”
While Weinberg seems to portray in his analogy the hockey ice surface as the alternative-world utopia seen in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” this analogy is not without its flaws. In reality, ice is slippery and overall traction of a roadmap for peace in the Middle East is not easy to say the least. One problem similar to the Football 4 Peace program (unrelated to the more successful Open Fun Football Schools program) in the aforementioned “Children of Jordan Valley” documentary is its temporary nature. If the program adopts an apolitical approach where hockey is only a mild reprieve from regional conflicts, the characters of the people involved in hockey will not change and these conflicts will still remain in future generations. I do not want to assert that these hockey programs alone can create peace. In fact, my above message shows that hockey needs to be coupled with constructive peacebuilding educational processes and contractual commitments from everyone involved.