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More than a game: Arab and Jewish team spreads goodwill

September 28, 2018

STAMFORD — The friendship between Jenan Maharmeh and Nitzan Daniel is not what you’d expect from two people on opposite sides of a many-decades-long conflict.

The teenage girls — one a Palestinian Arab and the other an Israeli Jew — communicate with ease, nimbly jumping from topic to topic, one moment laughing about lighthearted fare such as a communication faux pas, and another discussing the Palestine-Israel conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.

Their friendship would likely never have happened without PeacePlayers, a nonprofit that brings disparate people together through the game of basketball.

On Wednesday both girls were in the Stamford area as part of a PeacePlayers team comprised of Arabs and Jews playing a “goodwill” game of basketball against the St. Luke’s School varsity girls team. Their purpose, however, was much more than just playing a game.

“We try to give all our youth a platform,” said Joe Smith, international programs officer for PeacePlayers, which was first launched in Northern Ireland and South Africa. “These young women are doing that all up and down the East Coast, sharing their story, with the hopes that we want to change perception and build friendships.”

Maharmeh said that when she decided to join the organization as a 7-year-old, she had no idea that decision would be the “first step on a thousand-mile journey.”

She said it’s rare for women to play sports in her culture, and many people have disparaged her involvement with PeacePlayers, including one of her teachers.

“I understood that it’s hard for them to understand,” she said. “Once you remove all of the biases and you think of someone only as a human being … it’s really amazing how far it can take you.”

Daniel said there isn’t as much of a stigma against playing sports in Israel, but that it’s still not fully accepted as a normal activity for girls and women, particularly on a team mixed with Arabs and Jews.

“You’re not just a girl playing basketball,” she said. “You’re a girl playing basketball with Palestinians, so it’s a big issue,”

Brian Kriftcher, founder and president of Stamford Peace Youth Foundation and chairman of the board of directors for PeacePlayers International, said the program is successful because breaking down barriers requires a long-term approach.

“It’s not this fleeting interaction,” Kriftcher said. “Stigma and stereotypes are broken down over an extended period of time together … when you’re in conflict with somebody, oftentimes you see them as irrelevant or a tool to you or an impediment. We encourage the process of seeing people as people.”

Kriftcher helped organize the goodwill game, seizing an opportunity when the girls were already coming to the area to receive an award from the Players’ Tribune, an upstart founded by former New York Yankees shortsop Derek Jeter, in Manhattan. The program has also received other awards, including an ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Even with all of its accolades, Daniel said the organization still receives plenty of backlash in Israel.

“A lot of people don’t like what we are doing,” she said.

Biases and prejudices are still commonplace, and often spill over into sports.

She told the story of a game in which a Palestinian teammate missed a shot and shouted “Ya allah,” Arabic for “Oh God.” Daniel said the referee, who didn’t speak Arabic, was convinced the player had used profanity and gave her a technical foul handed out for unsportsmanlike conduct.

But ultimately she sees the trip to the United States as a way to get support for PeacePlayers, with the hope that it will lead to more acceptance back home.

“When people see other people interested, they get interested, too,” she said.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com

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