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Friday, August 22, 2014

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Neutral Zone looks at hockey’s impact in Israel

Tags: Sports arab hockey Jewish peace
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Some of the older kids at the Canada Israel Hockey School

Hockey is known for many things – its speed, finesse, toughness, action and drama. But as an instrument of peace, not so much.

Yet that’s just what TSN found when it examined a unique hockey program in the northern Israeli city of Metulla, hard on the Lebanese border.

There, children of Jewish and Arab backgrounds put the historic conflict behind them, don the same uniforms, get out on the ice and enjoy the great Canadian game.

Neutral Zone: The Story of Hockey in Northern Israel, which aired this week, tells the story of Canadian-inspired hockey program, financed by a Canadian businessman, run out of the Canadian-built Canada Centre and coached by a Canadian.

It’s hockey and it’s Israel, so what’s not to like?

More than just a feature on hockey in an exotic locale, Neutral Zone is an accomplished bit of filmmaking, produced and directed by Joshua Shiaman and written and narrated by journalist Michael Farber.

It focuses on the Canada-Israel Hockey School, a three-year-old creation of media magnate Sidney Greenberg. After organizing international Jewish hockey tournaments in Metulla, he was asked by a local farmer for the seed funding to start a youth program. Greenberg sent him a cheque for $37,000 and the rest is now hockey history.

Mike Mazeika, described as a Toronto “rink rat,” runs the program. As he put it, “The main goal is to integrate Jewish and Arab kids together, playing hockey, so they can understand each other and make a difference for the future.”

A Torontonian teaching hockey in the Middle East might make for an interesting story in its own right, but for Shiaman a story with hockey “as an instrument of peace” made it an easy sell to the brass at TSN.

Visiting Israel for the second time – his first was as part of Brithright eight years ago – Shiaman was surprised “at how much those kids love hockey.”

“The hockey was pretty good,” considering most of the kids have only been playing for a couple of years, he said.

But of course, the focus of the documentary was on the personal relationships created through the sport and the way it has broken down barriers.

Noy Rosenberg, a precocious 12-year old kibbutznik, is best friend with Bisan Maree, a 13-year-old girl from the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights. Rosenberg is convinced that Maree is “the best goalie ever” and Maree is inclined to agree with her.

Besides walking arm in arm in the arena and giving each other lots of hugs, they keep in touch on Facebook and through their cellphones.

As Shiaman said, “They became best friends.”

Lidor and Peleg Bez, 16-year-old twins, were a tougher case. Older kids, we hear, find it more difficult to be accepting. Lidor flat out admits he doesn’t like Arabs: “They shoot on my house. They try to kill me.”

Yet he’s become good friends with Mayyas Sabbagh, a Druze teenager, also from Majdal Shams. Sabbagh didn’t know any Jewish kids before hockey. Now, he said, “Me and Jewish kids are friends.”

There are heartwarming moments, particularly when we see Hezi Segev, whose son Nimrod was killed in action during the 2006 Lebanon war, talk about how hockey has affected him. The Rosh Pina team is named in Nimrod’s honour, and Segev attends games cheering on the same side as Arab families.

The whole situation, his attitude to Arabs, “it’s confusing. It’s always confusing,” he conceded.

Hockey has helped bridge some divides. As coach Mazeika put it, peace won’t be an immediate outcome, but if you don’t take small steps, you’ll never be able to take a big step.

The CJN print edition returns August 1.

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