August 11, 2008
Jordan Farmar shoots for Middle East coexistence
Only this time his teammates were not named Kobe and Pau but Daniel and Ibrahim, and instead of shooting to win, he was shooting for coexistence in the Middle East.
Farmar came to Israel for a week to volunteer teaching basketball skills to Jewish and Arab children and to visit his Israeli-born stepfather's family. The Peres Peace Center, Jewish National Fund and Peace Players International, an organization that aims to use basketball to unite and educate children in conflict areas, organized the trip.
Even though he was not at the Staples Center, the NBA's only Jewish player during the 2007-08 season looked like he was on his home court in Jerusalem, where he led 25 Jewish and Arab children, ages 10 to 14, in shooting, passing and ball-handling drills. The kids were enamored with the Lakers backup point guard and thrilled that he took time off to spend with them.
"I play for the Los Angeles Lakers together with Kobe Bryant," Farmar said when he introduced himself to the young athletes. "I thought it would be good to come here and reach out to you guys, so let's do some drills and have some fun."
A voice in the crowd immediately questioned him: "Why aren't you at the Olympics in China?" He answered politely: "Because I wanted to be here in Jerusalem with you guys."
The basketball camp at Jerusalem's Hand in Hand Jewish-Arab school was one of several Farmar conducted across the country. In between basketball clinics, Farmar was a tourist, visiting the Western Wall, Dead Sea, Masada and wounded children at a hospital.
Throughout the Jerusalem clinic, Farmar gave the children basketball tips like "keep the ball real low and your head up."
When it was over, he tried to teach them lessons for life.
"The most important thing is that you're all together," Farmar told the kids in English before his words were translated into Arabic and Hebrew. "It doesn't matter who you are and where you're from. We can all work together and have fun. Just like you have to practice basketball, you have to practice working together and communicating, and if you do, that will make things better around here."
Asked whether basketball could bring Israeli and Palestinian children closer to peace, Farmar told The Jewish Journal: "I don't know if basketball alone can do it, but you have to start somewhere. Sports are a good way to bring people of all different backgrounds together to have a good time. It breaks down barriers."
Farmar, whose mother is Jewish and father African American, said that he was in a unique position to reach out to Israeli and Arab children because of his own diverse background. He said it enables him to transcend cultural barriers, both in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
"I have roots here like I do in other places, so coming here was important to me," Farmar said. "I've been fortunate to become a professional basketball player. I wanted to come here and tell kids from all different backgrounds that they can come play together, have a good time and not think about the conflict."
Farmar, 21, was accompanied on the trip by his personal trainer and by his stepfather, Yehuda Kolani, who married his mother, Melinda, when Farmar was 3 and raised him with an appreciation for his Judaism and a love for Israel. Kolani took Farmar to Israel when he was 7 and 11 to visit his family in Tel Aviv and learn about his background.
Kolani said his stepson was proud to be Jewish, African American and all the other parts of his identity. He said Farmar visited his agent Arn Tellem's Seeds of Peace camp in Maine for three years and that working with Jewish and Arab children in Israel was the next step.
"I'm honored that Jordan is having this experience using his profession to get kids together and show them a different perspective," Kolani said. "This is a big step toward living together for these kids. His message is that they don't have to be enemies or best friends. They just have to communicate with each other and live in peace."
Basketball is a good way of sending that message in Israel, which has, surprisingly, become an international basketball powerhouse. Israeli teams have reached the Euroleague Final Four in eight out of the last nine seasons, and Israel is the only country other than the United States that is featured in an exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Peace Players International came to Israel and the West Bank in 2005 after successful initiatives in South Africa and Northern Ireland. The organization has started programs since then in Cyprus and New Orleans. Altogether it has served 45,000 children in conflict areas around the world.
At Peace Players' initiative, the Jerusalem municipality started a "Peace League" last year, with three teams integrated from nearby Jewish and Arab communities, three Jewish and two Arab teams from Jerusalem and an Arab team from Bethlehem.
Karen Doubilet, Peace Players' Middle East managing director, said she has seen a significant change in the children who have come through the program. She said the kids are able to overcome a language barrier and psychological and cultural barriers to play together and even become friends.
"Like in basketball, it takes time to get warmed up, but then we see the kids playing together," Doubilet said. "Sports give people from all sectors of the population a common passion. When they are together on a team, it doesn't matter whether their teammates are Jewish or Arab. They pass to them, because they want to win."
Twelve-year-old Daniel Livkin, of Jerusalem's low-income Jewish Patt neighborhood, and 14-year-old Ibrahim Deeb, of the nearby Arab neighborhood Beit Safafa, said they were glad that the program brought them together and allowed them to meet an NBA player like Farmar.
"If we want peace, we have to play together," Livkin said.
"We love to play basketball, and we love to do it together," Deeb added.
When the basketball clinic was over, Farmar signed autographs, but some children apparently had not understood who he was.
"It was great meeting Michael Jordan," one kid said upon leaving the gym.