Leitner Helps Bridge Cultural Divide Through Sport

Michael Leitner, a professor at the California State University, Chico and a member of the organization Mifalot spoke about his contributions to peacemaking efforts between Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East on Oct. 17. The organization believes that the mitigation of tensions between conflicting cultures in the region starts with children, and makes this belief come to life through integrating these children in soccer games.

In Israel, Leitner participates in researching soccer camp programs in Mifalot and the soccer program through the Peres Center for Peace. He has helped to collect evidence of their effectiveness and to improve the programs. In addition, Leitner has been a professor at several other universities in the U.S. and Israel, and has written a highly acclaimed book, titled Israeli Life and Leisure in the 21st Century.

A crucial part of Leitner’s research on Israeli-Arab relations involves surveys given to children in these sporting programs. The most striking data that he outlined was found through pre-camp surveys.

On both sides of the cultural divide, about 70 percent of children believed the other side dislikes them. The research found that only 30 percent of children on each side actually hold a grudge initially. Another pretest statistic from a soccer program found that only 10 percent of Arab children trust Jewish Israelis, but that after being in the program this number jumped to 45 percent.

Leitner attributes such a dramatic impact to several factors. At the soccer camp, children are educated on the lifestyle, language, and traditions of Israelis and Arabs. They are taught to appreciate the mutual love of the sport they play despite differences they may have with other players.

Because Israelis are mostly Jewish, and Arabs are mostly Muslim, this cultural education can reveal some common ground otherwise overlooked between the two religions. Then when teams are organized, Israelis and Arabs are made teammates.

“You have Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli all on the same team,” Leitner said. “When you play on the same team, you bond.”

One member of the audience wondered why the parents of these children would even allow this intermingling. Leitner explained that for children from impoverished Arab communities, Mifalot allows them to play a sport they love, on quality fields, with free equipment. Many parents take this opportunity to give their children a rare experience despite its location in Israel. These children are mostly at these camps in order to play the sport, and the cultural education comes in as a peripheral benefit, Leitner said.

“The kids that join [these programs] join … because they love soccer, not because they want to believe in coexistence,” he said. “Our pretests show that they start out with negative attitudes, but through participation in the program, that changes a lot.”

Leitner believes that there has been a lack of media exposure for these events, which is due to a few key reasons. Many Arab children and teens are participating in secret, as playing with Israeli children puts them and their families in danger of being ostracized by their communities. Leitner also believes that mainstream media doesn’t value the small victories enough to distract them from the general theme of strife in the region. He hopes that changing the perspective of the younger generations will improve the future narrative.

Featured Image by Alex Benthien / For The Heights