A soccer match or table tennis tournament involving Jewish and Arab children surely won’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Tami Hay thinks peace has to start somewhere, so why not with sports?
“Sports can really change the life of people, it can change realities,” said Hay, who directs the sports department for the Peres Center for Peace, the Tel Aviv-based nonprofit organization founded in 1996 by Israel’s current president, Shimon Peres. (He stepped away from day-to-day involvement when he became Israel’s president in 2007. Hay hopes he rejoins the organization when his term is up.)
The organization works to create contacts between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, in the realms of medicine, technology, business, arts and sports. The agency runs joint programs for children in soccer, cricket, table tennis, basketball and wheelchair basketball.
About 1,500 children participate in Peres Center sports programing each year, according to Hay, 33, who was in Philadelphia earlier this month to speak at the Beyond Sport Summit, an annual global conference highlighting the role athletics play in social change.
The conference drew notables such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, NBA Commissioner David Stern, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, retired Eagles superstar Brian Dawkins and NHL hall-of-famer Mike Richter.
One of the panels Hay spoke on, “Sports on the Edge: Courageous Stories On How Sport Has Created Change on the Ground,” also featured John Layfield, former World Wrestling Entertainment champion, who founded a rugby program that works with at-risk youth in Bermuda.
She also used her visit here to fundraise for the Peres Center.
“We are using sport to educate and create a better society, a future society. This is in the interest of the Jewish people abroad to support things like that,” she said in an interview. “You want kids that will be well educated, that will be more tolerant and will have respect for the other, no matter where he is coming from, what language he speaks or what religion he has.”
Hay said she loved to play sports growing up in the streets of Tel Aviv but never competed seriously. She earned degrees in political science and public policy from Tel Aviv University before joining the Peres Center.
She said she encounters skepticism about the program’s goals everywhere, including from members of her own family. Before the center can win over children, they have to convince parents to let their children try it, she said.
It’s especially difficult, she noted, to convince Palestinian parents in the West Bank to allow their children to participate in an Israel-run program and travel to the Jewish state.
While trying to be as apolitical as possible, the organization, she said, targets disadvantaged communities in Israel proper and the West Bank, often in places where there are no other opportunities to participate in organized sports, particularly for girls.
The children spend most of the time learning how to play a particular sport in their own communities, and they play in joint games five or six times a year.
“In most of the communities, you have lots of curiosity about the other. But they never met, they only know what they know from the media, what they heard from families or relatives,” she said.
“Of course, at the beginning, they have hesitation. They are saying, ‘They will hit me, they want to kill me,’ ” she said.
But the comfort level does increase over time and, eventually, many of the children start “friending” one another on Facebook.
“We are a drop in the sea,” she said, “but you need to start from something.”