The Road to (Ultimate) Peace

Michael Gross


This summer, over 130 men and women from Canada, Australia, Brazil, England and America joined with over 200 Arab and Jewish Israelis in their war-ridden homeland with a common goal: to promote peace through the Spirit of the Game of Ultimate Frisbee. Almost every one of them had a Frisbee in hand, spinning it on their fingertips like a basketball, and the ones who didn’t were catching Frisbees with ninja-like precision. Who are these people? Where am I?

These people happened to be some of the finest Ultimate players in the entire world and I was in Ashkelon, Israel, 22 miles from the Gaza Strip. I was there as a counselor at Ultimate Peace, a peace program in Israel centered on the team-oriented sport of Ultimate Frisbee. My job was to advocate for peace, to help build brotherhood in an atmosphere of violence.

The day before my flight, an email was sent to all the participants: “The kidnapping of the teens in the West Bank and the rockets fired from Gaza are surely cause for some concern as we plan to commence our camp …” I stopped there. I felt fear rise, but I knew I would step freely into the uncertain state of Israel. It is not just violence that breeds conflict in the Middle East, but also the apathy born of fear. Behavior reflects character; character demands commitment to finding solutions in every arena where violence is the status quo.

At our first staff orientation, “Spirit of the Game” was the common theme in the assembly hall. What is Spirit of the Game? That is what someone asked the coach standing next to me. He turned around and looked at me as if I had asked the question. I knew what Spirit of the Game was.  The coach’s face expressed confusion. It was as if Michael Jordan was asked what the Playoffs were. This coach was actually quite similar to Michael – now, not physically similar, he was a white Canadian with shaggy hair, but he was the number one ranked Ultimate Frisbee player in the entire world.

That week, I relearned the essence of the Spirit of the Game and saw it in action. In Ultimate, the Spirit of the Game resides in respecting the integrity of the players and the game. With no referee to moderate, a unique aspect of Ultimate Frisbee that makes it the quintessential sport for such a program, the Arab and Jewish Israeli campers were given the opportunity to manage for themselves and settle their own arguments on the field – not their coaches, parents, or respective political leaders.

On the last night, we met in the same assembly hall for our first and only formal seminar about the Middle East conflict. Jews and Arabs went up to the stage, one after the other, to share their thoughts. Each one of them had the same story: before Ultimate Peace, I hated the other side for no reason, other than the fact that their families, neighbors, and communities felt the same way. But, after Ultimate Peace, the stereotypes began to dissolve, and instead of Jews and Arabs, they were teammates on a Frisbee team.

My newfound belief in peace in the Middle East was nearly shattered upon my return home: breaking News on CNN read, “Missing Israeli teens found dead in West Bank.” Days later, war broke out between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the several attempted ceasefires since have yet to actually cease anything, begging the question: was what happened at Ultimate Peace real? Was peace still possible?

Yes. Ultimate Peace is only five years old and the progress it has made in that time is astronomical; it is changing the stereotypes that are the very source of the conflict and others programs such as Seeds of Peace are doing the same. It would be idealistic to suggest that this will be resolved overnight, in a year, or even a decade. It will most certainly be a long road. But this is a good start.