Only a week after five members of a Jewish West Bank settler family were killed in a knife attack, the championship game of the American football league in Israel again brought together people from opposites sides of the political spectrum.
This time in celebration.
"We play as a team and leave our personal stuff on the side. If they can do it, I can, too," said Musa Elayyan, a 21-year-old Rebels defensive lineman from the West Bank city of Ramallah who grew up in the United States and goes by the nickname "Moose." "Once you've played together you create a bond, especially on a successful team."
'The football field is a haven' (Photo: Mindy McKinny)
The Rebels held off a late charge to beat the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres 32-30 on Friday at Kraft Stadium, the venue named for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
It's not the Super Bowl – the level of play is more akin to high school football but on a smaller field and with only eight players per side. And it's definitely not the World Cup – although the shofar, a traditional ram's horn, can give the vuvuzela a run for its money when its blast is heard around the stadium. But it is a chance for Jews and Palestinians to put aside their political beliefs and lock heads on the football field.
"We are the only Israeli league of any kind that has any Palestinian players and I'm proud of that fact," said Steve Leibowitz, the founder of the four-year-old league. "We were concerned about the politics but it just hasn't been an issue."
'Terrific tool of creating a bridge'
Even in the stands, the camaraderie stood out. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and children wearing costumes for the Jewish festival of Purim cheered and waved Israeli flags when Rebels linebacker Ayoub Elayyan, Musa's brother, intercepted a pass to set up the first touchdown of the game.
Although American football is still an afterthought on the Israeli sporting scene, it has steadily gained ground in recent years. This year's Israel Bowl attracted more than 1,000 fans and was broadcast live on the Israeli sports channel.
The Rebels are a team made up of mostly Jewish settlers with American backgrounds. They wear orange jerseys and helmets, adopting the color that symbolized the Jewish settlers in Gaza who were removed in 2005.
And although the coach kicked out a few players who had reservations about playing with Palestinians, Musa Elayyan said the team quickly gelled and captured the crown in the eight-team local league in only their second year together. He now considers his teammates to be among his best friends.
"A lot of their views changed after we joined," said Musa Elayyan, who played high school football in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "You can never fully drop the politics but the football field is a haven."
The Sabres, who won Israel Bowl III last year, are also a mixed Israeli-Arab team.
Leibowitz calls the concept of the league "peace under the helmet," and Jerusalem Lions quarterback Itay Ashkenazi said the nature of the game is what breeds the intimacy between the players.
"The essence of the game brings players together in such a close and intimate nature that you can't help but rely on each other," said Ashkenazi, a 31-year-old player who is the son of Israel's recently retired military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. "Football is a terrific tool of creating a bridge, creating a dialogue between people."
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