[Editor’s Note: The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland is covering the Friendship Games. 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. The Big Lead is providing this forum for additional publication of some of the writing and reporting from the Friendship Games.]
EILAT, Israel — A pair of septuagenarians – one Israeli, the other Jordanian — merely sitting together to watch a basketball game and enjoy each other’s company is difficult for many Americans to appreciate. Such collegiality remains a safety risk in some corners of the region, nearly a generation after the nations’ historic peace accord.
Yet, the sight of 78-year-old Arie Rosenzweig, a former athletic director at Tel Aviv University, and retired Jordanian General Mansour Abu Rashid, 71, together at the Friendship Games in Eilat, Israel, is not only a byproduct of a decade working together, but, more broadly, a beacon for the event’s younger participants: if these men, after years of being told the other side was the enemy, can forge a lasting friendship through sports, then so can everyone else.
“I can tell you that one of the highlights for me is my relationship with my colleague from Jordan,” said Rosenzweig, the Games organizer, while gesturing to Rashid. “For me to fly to Jordan, it’s like for you to go to the moon. You must understand: not long ago we only think how to avoid each other, not to start war. But now we are at peace.”
Such retrospectives are appropriate following the 12th annual Friendship Games, a week-long basketball tournament and cross-cultural gathering that brings together college-aged athletes from all over the Middle East, Europe and Russia with the goal of promoting peace and understanding.
“I think there’s a respect on both sides,” said Friendship Games sponsor Ed Peskowitz, also a former co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks. “[I think Rosenzweig has] respect for his courage and his commitment and perseverance with programs like the Friendship Games. For Monsour, I think it’s respect that Arie has an open mind and wants to build bridges in the region and do that through young people.”
Rashid originally joined the Games to help bring in Jordanian students, though neither Rosenzweig nor Rashid remember the exact circumstances of their first meeting. “It develops within the years,” Rosenzweig said of his friendship with Rashid. “You find out that he’s capable. He’s a man of honor. He doesn’t tell you lies. That’s the most important thing.” The histories of Jordan and Israel are tied to their tenuous existence, after they respectively declared independence in 1946 and 1948. For nearly the next five decades, even when they weren’t in combat, Jordan and Israel were at war; their borders were closed to one another.
“When you grow up as a child in Israel, it was difficult to understand that somebody has friends in the other country,” Rosenzweig said. “But it happened, and that’s why the Games are so successful. When the kids meet and see that these are normal people, that’s the secret of the Games. Bringing them together, different nationalities, different religions, but all human beings.”
Rosenzweig spent 24 years as Tel Aviv University’s athletic director, before joining Israel’s Olympic Committee in 2000. He also served as president of the Organizing Committee for the 1989 and 1993 World Maccabiah Games and later co-founded the North American Maccabi Youth Games in 2008, which today includes as many as 6,000 participants. He was given the 2016 Chairman’s Award of Excellence from the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. But for all his contributions to international sporting events, he had never been friends with a Jordanian before meeting Rashid.
Once an Israeli prisoner of war, Rashid served as Jordan’s Director of Military Intelligence and was a key player in the peace talks between Jordan and Israel; he presented the Israel-Jordan peace treaty on Oct. 26, 1994, to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein in front of President Bill Clinton. “This is the man. This is history,” Rosenzweig said, smiling. “And now there’s a border, they’re stamping the passport.
You can go there, they can come here. It looks so normal.” Since retiring from the army in 1999, Rashid has turned his attention even more toward creating a lasting peace in the Middle East. He formed the nonprofit Amman Center for Peace and Development, which helped earn him a 2015 Kay Family Award from the Anti-Defamation League in Washington.
“Seeing him honored like that was inspiring,” said Peskowitz, who brought Rashid’s accomplishments to the attention of the ADL. “He’s risked his life in lots of different ways.” Among other peace-related summits, Rashid organizes meetings once a year in each country between former Israeli and Jordanian generals to discuss the state of the countries’ relationship, which Peskowitz also sponsors. “Many Jordanians, many Arabs, many Israelis also, they… lost a loved one in the war,” Rashid said. “And they don’t want also the next generation to suffer like us. And for that reason, now I am fighting with the Israelis, with the Palestinians, with the Arabs who believe in peace, who are fighting for the peace between Arabs and Israelis.
And believe me, one day, one day, the peace will be in our area.” Though travel between Israel and Jordan is now possible, some tensions between the two countries still remain. Rashid recalled an incident after the 2014 Friendship Games, when photos of Jordanian athletes at the tournament surfaced back home. A subsequent investigation ultimately led to a handful of players being kicked off the Jordanian national team. Despite the potential ramifications, those players have followed Rashid’s lead and returned to the Friendship Games every year since.
“They insist to come here and to participate in the tournament,” Rashid said. “They believe in peace and they believe that, through sports, we can make peace between the people who are fighting each other.” Since that incident three years ago, stricter measures are in place to ensure the safety of Jordanian, as well as Palestinian, participants of the tournament.
All photos and videos, including the ones taken by members of the media, need to be checked by a Games staffer to ensure no players from Jordan or Palestine can be seen in the background. Their names cannot be released. Aside from being kicked off a national team, knowledge of a Jordanian citizen interacting with Israelis in Israel could pose a threat his or her family. For that reason, many Jordanian participants don’t tell their families where they’re going or what they’re doing. “Even if we have a bad situation, we have to continue to strengthen the relationship between the young,” Rashid said. “I insist here, even if we have wars in the future– and I hope not– we have to keep the Friendship Games to continue for the future.”
That remains the guiding principle for both Rosenzweig and Rashid as they see the Friendship Games enjoy its second decade – a past, present, and future long considered unfathomable to many.
Several times each year, either Rosenzweig or Rashid boards a 22-minute flight to the other’s country to visit the man who transformed from foe to friend.
And that’s a sentence neither man ever expected to hold true.
“When you are living in such an area, sometimes it’s not so bad to dream about the possibility,” Rosenzweig said. “I go to the airport and they stamp my passport and I get [into Jordan]. If you would have told me that 30 years ago, I would have said you were crazy. But things happen and sometimes things change.”
Photo by Alex Frum; Arie Rosenzweig (left) and Mansour Abu Rashid (right)