Hockey breaks ice for Arab and Jewish teens
An Arab-Jewish hockey team has become an unlikely icebreaker in this remote corner of northern Israel, overcoming barriers of language, culture and conflict.
A few years ago, a mixed team in these parts was unthinkable. In the arid Middle East, hockey is virtually unheard of, and relations between Arabs and Jews in this combustible area, next to the tense borders of Lebanon and Syria, are generally downright chilly. The Arab players on the Metulla junior ice hockey team, coming from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, technically aren't even Israeli.
But thanks to an accidental combination of generous philanthropy, a local hockey enthusiast and a sports-mad Arab mayor, the mixed team of teens and preteens is thriving.
"When you play together, you forget that you are Arabs and Jews," said Mayyas Sabag, a 12-year-old forward from the Druse village of Majdal Shams. He is one of five Arab athletes on the 14-member team, which is traveling to Canada this month.
The team is the product of Metulla's Canada Centre, a sprawling sports complex donated to this rural border town in the 1990s by Canadian Jews. The building houses Israel's only Olympic-size hockey rink.
And when the hockey players get skating, the only tension they feel is the thrill of competition.
"When I'm on the ice, I don't feel the ground underneath me," said Maya al-Yousef, a 13-year-old Druse Arab.
With her curly hair crushed into her helmet, al-Yousef was among two dozen youths speeding, skidding and weaving on the ice during a recent practice session. They were a blur of whacking hockey sticks, shouting coaches and flying pucks.
The two Arab girls and three boys on the team said they had never met Jews their age before playing ice hockey. Jews said the same about Arabs. The Arab youths have adopted a halting Hebrew from Jewish teammates.
Language aside, there are clear cultural gaps between the loud and mostly secular Jewish children and more conservative, polite Arab youths.
The coach, parents and sponsors all acknowledge the project is only a small step toward real peace in the region. And while many players said they were not necessarily close friends, they said the meetings have changed the way they view each other.
"In a short period of time we got to know each other," 14-year-old Niv Weinberg said. "We aren't the only ones in living here (in Israel). This country isn't ours alone."