Jews, Palestinians and the unbearable lightness of sports and politics

Posted on 26 september 2011


My fall depression has already begun. It all started in the Israeli sun.  There, in the area where some of us feel ‘the mother of all conflicts’ is going on, I was confronted with the sometimes unbearable lightness of sports and politics.

These days, Israel and Palestine are back in the spotlight. The Palestinians applied for full membership of the United Nations and are, as expected, going to be disappointed. The Jewish Israelis hold their breath, especially since the key pillars of the security of their land -peace with Egypt, the stability of Syria and the friendship withTurkey and Jordan- crumble. This week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sighed about the current situation: ‘I’ve never been more worried aboutIsrael’s future’.

In this context, I visited the international conference ‘Sport as a Mediator Between Cultures’  in Israel last week. Academics, politicians and practitioners debated about the significance of sport for peace in conflict areas. In his key note speech Professor Fred Coalter hit the right nail by citing philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s words:  “There is the optimism of the will, and the pessimism of the intellect.”

There was certainly a lot of optimism at the conference. The United Nations special advisor on Sport for Development and Peace, Wilfried Lemke, kept it simple: “Sport creates togetherness, togetherness leads to dialogue, dialogue leads to mutual understanding and mutual understanding leads to peace.” If we follow his logic, world peace is a matter of more balls and pitches, especially when we use them in the context of  ‘the mother of all conflicts. ”

The smiling faces and emotional stories of Jewish, Christian and Muslim children, who are now best friends through projects like Ultimate Peace Frisbee and Football4Peace, make you want to believe Lemke’s story. Indeed, without this “optimism of the will” there would be no peace initiative off the ground.

But still. I slowly became pessimitic by watching the children and by using the intellect. Were these the same children as the boys who are now groomed as a suicide bomber in Palestinian camps? Would playing frisbee together help anything as long as the discriminatory actions towards Arabs in Israel just continue? Sports offers, as  sport scientist Jay Coakley learned us, sites for social experiences, not causes for social outcomes.

And what if my pessimism is unjustified and sports really leads to peace between Jews and Palestinians? Will this peace result in more rapprochements between the West and Islamic countries? Will the US suddenly have faith in Iran, will the Jews have nothing to fear from aggressive neighbors anymore, will Al Qaeda bury the hatchet, and will certain Western politicians, such as Dutch MP Geert Wilders, stop their anti-Islam campaign? No, I realized. Naming the conflict between Israel and Palestinians as “the mother of all conflicts” is probably an even greater simplicity than the belief in sport as a peacemaker.

Standing at the middle of an Israeli sports ground,  I was not only overwhelmed by the unbearable lightness of sport, but also by the simplicity of politicians.