‘When you play together, you forget that you are Arabs and Jews, says Druze who plays on Metulla team. Jewish teen: This country isn’t ours alone

An Arab-Jewish hockey team has become an unlikely icebreaker in this remote corner of northern Israel, overcoming barriers of language, culture and conflict.

A few years ago, a mixed team in these parts was unthinkable. In the arid Middle East, hockey is virtually unheard of, and relations between Arabs and Jews in this combustible area, next to the tense borders of Lebanon and Syria, are generally downright chilly.

Thanks to an accidental combination of generous philanthropy, a local hockey enthusiast and a sports-mad Arab mayor, the mixed team of teens and preteens is thriving.

“When you play together, you forget that you are Arabs and Jews,” said Mayyas Sabag, 12, a forward from the Druze village of Majdal Shams. He is one of five Arab athletes on the 14-member team, which is traveling to Canada this month.

The team is the product of Metulla’s Canada Center, a sprawling sports complex donated to this rural border town in the 1990s by Canadian Jews. The building houses Israel’s only Olympic-size hockey rink.

And when the hockey players get skating, the only tension they feel is the thrill of competition.

“When I’m on the ice, I don’t feel the ground underneath me,” said Maya al-Yousef, 13, a Druze Arab.

With her curly hair crushed into her helmet, al-Yousef was among two dozen youths speeding, skidding and weaving on the ice during a recent practice session. They were a blur of whacking hockey sticks, shouting coaches and flying pucks.

The two Arab girls and three boys on the team said they had never met Jews their age before playing ice hockey. Jews said the same about Arabs. The Arab youths have adopted a halting Hebrew from Jewish teammates.

Language aside, there are clear cultural gaps between the loud and mostly secular Jewish children and more conservative, polite Arab youths.

The coach, parents and sponsors all acknowledge the project is only a small step toward real peace in the region. And while many players said they were not necessarily close friends, they said the meetings have changed the way they view each other.

“In a short period of time we got to know each other,” Niv Weinberg, 14, said. “We aren’t the only ones in living here (in Israel). This country isn’t ours alone.”

Levav Weinberg, 30, a Metulla apple farmer and hockey enthusiast, began the Canada-Israel Hockey School two years ago with funding from Jewish Canadian philanthropist Sydney Greenberg. He subsidized coaching, equipment, uniforms and rink time with the dream of bringing the popular winter sport to Israel.

To encourage enrollment, Weinberg talked up the project to a friend: Dolan Abu-Saleh, the mayor of Majdal Shams.

‘We aren’t going to let each other fail’

Majdal Shams village is nestled in the Golan Heights, a mountainous plateau Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Although Israel later annexed the territory, the move was never internationally recognized, and unlike Israel’s own Druze community, who serve in the military and are generally well integrated, Golan residents still consider themselves Syrian, or refer to themselves simply as Arabs or Druze.

Such barriers made little difference when Abu-Saleh, 34, promised parents a free bus to Metulla, 12 miles away, if their children took up the sport. Within weeks, 100 Arab youths turned up. They even had a translator.

Weinberg faced a new challenge: getting Jewish youths involved. Their parents were reluctant to allow them to play with Arabs, he said.

Weinberg won parents over with $5 classes, overcoming concerns with an affordable way to keep children busy. More than 200 Jewish children have since signed up, in addition to about 120 Arabs.

The school keeps new Arab and Jewish students in different classes, seeking to build their confidence on ice before introducing them to each other. But when they are skilled enough to compete, the youths are placed on mixed Arab-Jewish teams.

“Then they understand: ‘These are the team members I have — and (getting along) is the only way to win the game,’” Weinberg said.

For a while, Weinberg also managed to bring in a small number of Lebanese children, thanks to another accident of history. The border runs through the nearby Israeli-controlled village of Ghajar, where the residents, while citizens of Lebanon, are allowed to enter Israel.

Full story via YnetNews