TCS Daily


Beating Swords Into Soccer Balls

By Ilya Shapiro - September 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Lost in all the hype surrounding the recent war between Hizbullah and Israel are the human interest stories. I don't mean the pictures of particular dead children, fleeing refugees or cramped bomb shelters. No, I mean human interest stories in the 5:00 news sense. These stories humanized the besieged population of both Israel and occupied Lebanon. And in so doing provided a stark contrast to the culture of Islamic extremism.

One such story that caught my eye is the innovative Hapoel "Keter" Tel Aviv Education and Social Project.

Hapoel is one of the biggest soccer clubs in Israel, fielding a team in the top national league and, in the European fashion, running youth development teams as well. Several years ago, the team's management decided that they needed to do more for society than simply provide entertainment to the masses. Raising money from the club's owners, corporate sponsors, and American and Canadian foundations, they spun off a non-profit organization that focuses on helping disadvantaged children to advance in school while integrating sports into their daily routine.

Hapoel's Education and Social Project now provides mentoring, tutoring, and educational enrichment activities -- all directly linked to soccer training and interaction with professional athletes. Its programs now give over 16,000 children across Israel the opportunity to be winners and break away from the limitations of their backgrounds. They involve kids from all parts of Israeli society -- Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, and Druze; new immigrants and those who have been "Sabras" (native-born Israeli) for generations.

The Project team -- which is led by Avram Berg, former Knesset speaker -- includes hundreds of teachers, educational counselors, coaches, and coordinators. Players from the senior club team also take part, using their status as role models to convey positive values. (I got to play with these all-stars when I visited the program in March, and soon realized that any contribution I made would have to be journalistic rather than athletic.)

Special programs for children at risk in sheltered boarding schools, children of Ethiopian immigrants (who face unique assimilation challenges), children with special needs, and youth in prison -- and communities in the north that bore the brunt of Hizbullah's godliness -- extend Hapoel's good works to those who most need them. There is even a program specifically aimed at girls and young women, to ensure that Israel remains the most opportunity-laden and hospitable place for Muslims in the Middle East.

The goal is to leverage the club's professional achievements and youthful love of sport to transform the lives of the underprivileged and promote understanding among different ethnic, religious, and socio-economic groups. Sports are thus a means of developing healthy young citizens, able and motivated to become contributing members of society.

Nati Zagai is one of the poster-boys (literally) of the Project. The 14-year old phenom has overcome his modest African roots to become one of the most recognizable faces of young Israel. He is a combination of Freddy Adu and an American idol winner for his adopted country -- and his example of self-discipline in both school and sports is an inspiration to his peers. "To play soccer you need to be a good person," he says, and the Education and Social Project has helped him and so many others in developing their human and social capital.

As I toured Hapoel's central facilities -- having first surveyed an after-school tutoring program where all the kids wore the bright red sweatshirts of their now-favorite team -- I noticed a great sense of pride from all involved. The students (most of whom had their fees completely waived) studied diligently, believing, perhaps for the first time in their lives, in the bright future that awaited them. The teachers brought a kind of missionary zeal to their lessons, and to the obvious care they displayed for their pupils' well-being. And the soccer staff grinned bemusedly at all the happiness they were creating by doing little more than opening their gates and reserving practice fields for the budding scholars.

It is said that our war on terror will end only when the evil-doers begin to care more about the lives of their children than about the death of ours. Well, Israel's long-running war with its neighbors will similarly end when a Hapoel Tel Aviv-type program appears in Damascus and Tehran (and Riyadh and Baghdad), at last providing the human interest -- the civil society -- so lacking in those countries.

[For more information on the Hapoel "Keter" Tel Aviv Education and Social Project, visit www.padom.co.il. Note also that Marc Wilf, Minnesota Vikings owner and great supporter of the Hapoel Project, is organizing a similar program for underprivileged youth in Minneapolis.]

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatch from Purple America" showed the hypocrisy of the Democrats' big tent pretensions.

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1 Comment

soccer and non-violence
somehow, I have a lot of trouble squaring that circle.

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