Frisbee — the ultimate peace negotiator

Who would have thought that a Frisbee could be used to build bridges between bitter enemies?

Ultimate Peace, an organization founded in 2008 by American Ultimate Frisbee players, tries to do just that. By running a weeklong overnight summer camp in Israel and other activities throughout the year that are open to Jewish-Israeli, Arab-Israeli and Palestinian youth, it aims to improve relations between the groups, one flying disc at a time.

“Summer camp has been our kind of big immersion program over the course of the last couple years,” said David Barkan, CEO and co-founder of Ultimate Peace. “We’ve done it three years in a row now, and it’s been a huge success.”

Now, organizers of Ultimate Peace are trying to strengthen the year-round programs so that the youth will remain engaged with bridge-building initiatives. That means raising funds for ongoing practices and cross-cultural tournaments as well as league games between communities. 

“During the year we have tended to lose the kids because it’s been hard to run programs and actually fund programs. … There’s nothing easy about running a coexistence program in the Middle East right now,” Barkan said. 

In an attempt to remedy that, the organization launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site in November to raise $150,000. Money raised will finance the administration of year-round programs as well as equipment, transportation for coaches and youths, site and field rentals, and insurance and permits.

Some funds also go toward hiring staff to lead these programs. Until now, the year-round programs have relied on volunteer coaches who often must drive several hours to the villages where games take place.  

Ultimate Peace would also like to hire staff to lead the organizations’ coaches-in-training program, which engages Middle Eastern youths who have participated in Camp Ultimate Peace in a year-round training that focuses on leadership on and off the field. 

As of Dec. 31, Ultimate Peace’s campaign at had raised more than $31,000, with 12 days left for members of the public to donate. Even if the campaign does not reach its goal, Ultimate Peace will get to keep all but 6 percent of the funds raised. 

It turns out that the noncontact sport — officially called Ultimate because Frisbee is a trademarked line of discs — is an appropriate, if unlikely, vehicle for bringing together Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. A central tenet of Ultimate is “spirit of the game,” which requires that players compete without an official referee. As a result, Ultimate demands that players self-officiate. 

Organizers of Ultimate Peace hope that the participants will take what they learn on the field — to resolve on-field disagreements peacefully and without outside help — and continue practicing those skills off the field.

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The summer camp, which was held in Akko, a town in northern Israel, the past two years, was conceived after players from the Matzah Balls — an all-Jewish recreational Ultimate team that includes Barkan as a member and competes in Santa Cruz — visited Israel in 2005 to lead an Ultimate clinic. There, they taught throwing techniques and ran scrimmages and friendly tournaments with Israeli children and adults, who were familiar with the game but wanted to learn more from the U.S. players.

But something was missing from these clinics: Arabs and Palestinians.

So the players began planning a camp with that goal in mind. With the help of Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry, Ultimate Peace became a reality. The organization held its inaugural summer camp in 2009. To date, Camp Ultimate Peace has reached 14 Arab, Jewish and Palestinian communities. Three hundred Middle Eastern youths — boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 14 — currently are involved.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am and proud of the progress we made,” said Barkan, a consultant for foundations and nonprofits who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the first event in 2009, Israeli and Palestinian kids who had never met before were randomly put on mixed teams for a tournament. Nobody was sure what their reactions would be, but later, when the kids selected their own teams for scrimmages, many opted to play with kids they’d been teamed with earlier; Palestinians and Israelis chose to play together.

On the first day of camp each year, the kids might be nervous and choose to remain close to kids from their own villages. But coaches fix that quickly, asking the campers to create nametags that spell out their names in Hebrew, Arabic and English. For a camper who only speaks Hebrew but not Arabic, he has no choice but to ask an Arabic-speaking camper for help writing his name, and vice versa, said Jeff Landesman, a Matzah Balls team member and Ultimate Peace coach from Altadena.

Campers, who sleep in integrated dorm rooms, spend hours each day working on technique, such as throwing mechanics, but they also enjoy various cultural events such as a talent show, art projects and dancing. The camp brings in staff who speak all three languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic – to help run activities. 

The biggest challenges that Ultimate Peace organizers face are less about ensuring campers get along and more about Israel’s precarious relationship with its neighbors. 

In November, Ultimate Peace campers-in-training — including 30 Arab Israelis, Jewish Israelis and Palestinians — were scheduled to come together for a monthly meeting, in Kfar Saba, in central Israel. But at the same time, Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were engaged in a mini-war. Consequently, the meeting was canceled. 

Internal struggles between campers are infrequent, but they have happened. One or two times, campers were sent home for bad behavior, according to Landesman, who works as a special-education teacher at Madison Elementary School in Pomona. 

For the most part, however, the camp has successfully formed bonds between participants that offer hope for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Contrary to what one might think, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a frequent topic of discussion among campers or staff, Landesman said.

“Sports in general are always a good way to help people from different cultures get along,” he said. “In fact, in Ultimate, there is conflict resolution … so it’s just so natural to help people learn how.”