By: Julia Karron
In 2005, after seeing generations of children from neighboring countries and cultures grow up amid conflict, Ed Peskowitz and Arie Rosenzweig tried a novel approach to diplomacy – a basketball tournament.
It would seem counterintuitive that more competition would calm tensions, but, as the 13th annual Friendship Games tips off Thursday in Eilat, Israel, both men can see their unorthodox method has yielded unquestionable success.
What began as a tournament of men’s teams from eight nations, has now grown to a week-long event that has added a women’s field, and featured teams from the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Furthermore, it has become increasingly defined less by what happens on the court and more by the cross-cultural exposure and interaction for the participants.
“Ed’s dream of friendship through sport has become a reality to all who have participated,” said Rosenzweig, in an email. He remains the Friendship Games’ organizer.
Peskowitz said: “The guiding principle is to foster and embrace ideas and programs that underscore peaceful existence.”
Despite the camaraderie espoused by the Games, the event still occurs in perhaps the world’s most tenuously secure region. In fact, participants from some nations do not even tell their families or friends of their whereabouts because some nations’ governments or cultures consider the mere act of visiting an enemy country – let alone interacting with those citizens – is tantamount to treason.
As a result, event organizers do not release the names of participating teams until after the start of the event.
Last year, the field included teams from Jordan, Palestine, Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania. Additionally, Israel boasted four teams: one Jewish, one Palestinian, one Arab and one comprised of players from Eilat.
The University of Tel-Aviv Israeli team was last year’s champion in the women’s division while the team from Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania took home the men’s trophy. Lithuania has now won back-to-back Friendship Game’s in the men’s division. In 2016, both the men’s and women’s team from Lithuania took home championships.
Together, Peskowitz and Rosenzweig knew not only the passion that sports can elicit but also how to pull off a multi-national event. Peskowitz was a former co-owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Rosenzweig, meantime, co-founded the North American Maccabiah Youth Games and also served as General Secretary of Israel’s Olympic Committee from 2000-08, and athletic director of Tel Aviv University. Peskowitz was an assistant basketball coach at the 2005 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Upon meeting one another, Peskowitz told Rosenzweig that the basketball court could be a place where young adults could “compete, socialize and … get to know each other.”
In addition to having participants eat meals together, as the Games have grown, event organizers have added cross-cultural events off the court, ranging from visits to holy sites across Israel to evening dance parties and boat rides.
Put it all together and the event has helped create friendships that last long after the games end.
“Due to the great development of social media, in many instances, the participants became friends for life,” said Rosenzweig.
That friendship changes the attitudes of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab players towards each other. In a study published by the World Leisure Journal in 2014, athletes who participated in the Friendship Games changed their previous attitudes of athletes from opposing countries from negative to positive, “indicating that the Friendship Games does indeed meet its stated purpose of promoting peace and coexistence through sports.”
“Each year the Games are proof of the power of sports to bridge the gaps of religion, nationality and political borders,” said Rosenzweig.
The event’s organizers sponsored student coverage of the Friendship Games. Editorial control of the coverage and content remained with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.