Frisbee helping bridge the cultural divide in Israel

When Raz Parnafes of Israel started playing Ultimate Frisbee in 2011, she had “never talked to an Arab, ever,” recalls the 16-year-old.

“The only interaction was that my dad would go buy meat in a specific place that was owned by some [Arab Israelis],” said Parnafes, who hails from Ra’anana, an Israeli city just north of Herzliya.

Two years later, “I have tons of Arab friends, Palestinian friends,” she said off-handedly.

What changed? Parnafes wasn’t just playing Ultimate Frisbee — she was playing it with Ultimate Peace, a 5-year-old organization co-founded by San Anselmo resident David Barkan. The volunteer-run organization brings together youth from Palestinian, Arab Israeli and Israeli Jewish communities to build understanding and communication through playing the sport.

Tournament action from the summer of 2012 photos/rachael cerrotti

A former competitive ultimate player (those involved in the sport call it simply “ultimate”), Barkan told j. in 2009 that Ultimate Frisbee was a natural choice for this kind of work because “there’s instant conflict resolution on the field. It’s a non-contact, nonviolent sport that builds accountability and responsibility.”

A member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, Barkan helped found Ultimate Peace in 2008. Then in early 2009, coaches traveled to Tel Aviv from around the world to teach the basics to 120 youth from Israel and the West Bank: how to throw a forehand, how to work as a team and how to resolve an on-field disagreement. Arabs and Jews played together on the same team.

While Ultimate Peace Middle East was initially envisioned as a summer event, with a U.S.-based team of ultimate players and coaches spearheading the program, over the past two years it has expanded.

Parnafes is one of 16 teens who are part of Ultimate Peace’s year-round coaches-in-training program, which helps get young people prepared for leadership roles in the organization. Four of those teens — two Israeli, two Arab — toured the United States for two weeks in late April and early May, speaking to different groups about how the game and the program has changed their lives.

Ali Awad, 16, joined his fellow coach-in-training Parnafes on the tour, which included an April 30 talk at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

Having grown up in Tamra, an Arab Israeli village just east of Akko, Awad joined Ultimate Peace in 2010 when a sports coach from his school told him about it. Reflecting last week, he said he had no idea what it would be like to interact with Jewish people.

“It was a bit difficult at first talking to people who weren’t from my environment,” said the teen, who added that his parents were “very supportive” of his participation. “But I learned pretty quickly that [Jews] are just like us.”

More 2012 tournament action

Awad said the nature of the fast-paced, 7-on-7 game meant that teens from different backgrounds had no choice but to cooperate and communicate.

While ultimate definitely gets competitive, it’s governed by what is known as the “Spirit of the Game,” which in part means that players officiate the game themselves, making judgments and decisions collaboratively when someone has committed a violation. Not working together, Awad explained, simply isn’t an option — and as a result, “you realize what you have in common.”

Three years after joining Ultimate Peace, Awad said he has not only become good friends with his Jewish teammates, but also feels a responsibility to counter misconceptions about Jews when he hears them.

“In my community, some people have a negative view of Jews, so I explain that they’re wrong,” he said. “And I can back it up with my experiences.”

Parnafes, who says she hopes to grow as a coach and eventually work for Ultimate Peace, which expanded to Colombia in 2011, echoed that statement.

“I’ll hear people at school get into political discussions, and often they just have the facts really wrong,” she said. “And that’s where I feel the need to say, ‘No, you’re wrong about this and that, and I know Arab kids and not all of them think like that. I can prove it.’ ”

Likewise, she said, “I know I’ve corrected a lot of people’s assumptions about Judaism just by coming to Ultimate Peace. When we talk about stereotypes that we had before, the Arabs say, ‘We thought all the Jews wanted to kill us,’ and Jews say ‘We thought all the Arabs wanted to kill us.’ Everybody sees that you can’t trust [ideas] like that unless you’ve met people, experienced things yourself.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.