Categorized | English, WSF 2011

In the Ring, It’s Peaceful Attack

Posted on 27 January 2011 by editor

Israelis and Palestinians pull no punches against intolerance. Credit:Pierre Klochendler

By Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jan 27, 2011 (IPS TerraViva) – The opening bell resounds through the bomb shelter turned boxing club located in the western part of the city. A Palestinian boxer swiftly jumps from his corner, moves across the ring, trades punches with his Israeli opponent.

Could a knockout be a new form of therapy to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Have both peoples decided to settle their old scores for good in the ring?

As a matter of fact, this place stands for quite the opposite – in this ethnically divided city it’s something of an anomaly.

Hidden underground, Israelis and Palestinians share the same love – the love of a sport which one might hardly associate with peace, tolerance and coexistence – actually, the most violent sport of all.

Jews, Arabs, the religious, secular, Russian immigrants and foreign workers, boys and girls all train at the Jerusalem Boxing Club, learning to pull their punches in life while pulling no punches in the ring.

Meet two of the club’s regulars: On the right, light heavyweight Ismail Jaafari, 36, a truck driver from Jabel Muqabber across town, a Palestinian neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.

On the left, lightweight Akiva Finkelstein, a 17-year-old religious seminary student from the Israeli settlement of Bet El in the occupied West Bank, the club’s rising star. Recently, he beat the European titleholder in a friendly match.

What both boxers have to say before their training round is far from the usually boasting and self-serving proclamations of contenders: “Inside the ring, we’re all boxers and it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” declares Finkelstein, the Israeli junior titleholder. “Everyone here is equal,” adds Jaafari, “and it doesn’t matter what religion or to which people one belongs.”

Managing the club are the two Luxemburg brothers. “Every human being has an evil side. That’s why there’s hostility, violence,” says Eli Luxemburg, the elder. “You read news about the situation in the paper; you get all worked up. Then, you come here to practise. Inside this tiny little square, you bring all your rage…”

“But fair play is a must! No-one comes here to settle scores, God forbid,” chimes in his younger brother Gershon. “We watch these kids very closely. If one of them fights with hatred, he is thrown out of the ring!” he warns, “We only encourage a fighting spirit. Boxers must be soldiers and gentlemen. They have to respect one another.”

The Luxemburgs earned their boxing credentials during the early 1960s in the former Soviet Union, both in the heavyweight category. Eli was twice the Soviet champion, Gershon, the champion of Uzbekistan. “As boys we had to learn boxing in order to defend ourselves against anti-Semitic assaults. It was sheer survival,” recalls Eli.

In 1972, freshly arrived in Israel, Gershon became the country’s undisputed champion for several times, and a fervent nationalist. “Before I started coaching, I thought the Arabs were an obstacle for us in this country, and that we couldn’t live together. But it’s hard to believe how boxing has brought us together.”

Jaafari has trained at the club for 14 years under the Luxemburgs’ patronage. He has served as a boxing referee in Israeli championships. For him, “Sports transcends borders”: “We put our gloves on, and we leave the political situation outside the ring.”

Easier said than done – during the worst years of the conflict, Jaafari recalls, he’d stay away from the club to avoid awkward encounters with Israeli club members.

Gershon would call him, insisting that he show up. ‘Who cares about the political situation outside,’ he’d tell him, ‘We’re here.’ “We’re more than friends; they’re like home, they’re family,” Jaafari sums up emotionally.

In Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians live separate, parallel lives. Separate housing and education, and separate political aspirations, all contribute to a growing mutual alienation.

A poster of Muhammad Ali presides over the training matches. “Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change,” once said the boxing legend.

Besides their common passion for boxing, what seems to have bound these Israelis and Palestinians together is their social background. Most come from low-income neighbourhoods.

Prodded by the Luxemburgs to create an alternative to street life for youngsters, Jaafari opened a boxing club in his own community. Its members come regularly to spar matches at the club. Boxers trained by Jaafari have taken top places in Palestinian championships.

Git Zakhalka, another Palestinian, leads a warm-up session, jogging around the ring, trailed by aspiring young Israeli boxers. Finkelstein recognises that beyond the secure confines of the club, he doesn’t spend time with Palestinians.

Yet, in a modest way, boxing here has changed him. “I used to think that Arabs are stupid, terrorists,” he acknowledges, embarrassed. “But then, here, I met Palestinians, and all of them are nice guys, we’re friends. This is a great place to get some perspective. If I hear a friend badmouthing Arabs, I tell him, you don’t know Arabs. I do.”

The bell announces the end of another training session. Finkelstein and Jaafari touch gloves in a friendly handshake.

In Biblical times, David, King of Israel, fought with Goliath, the great warriors of the Philistines, thereby sparing their peoples a deadly round of fighting. Shouldn’t this provide some sort of model of conflict resolution, is the purposefully naive question addressed to the Israeli religious boxing hopeful.

“David and Goliath fought to the death,” Finkelstein says. “Here, we’re into rounds and scoring points.”

Scoring points in rounds of fighting is precisely what Israelis and Palestinians have been doing during their 63-year-old conflict. Can they be saved by the bell? “There is war, and then there is life, and we can manage,” says Gershon Luxemburg confidently. (END)

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