October 25, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 2

Playing for Peace in the Middle East: Research Shows Positive Changes

Mifalot brings Palestinian and Israeli youth together to play soccer.

Mifalot brings Palestinian and Israeli youth together to play soccer.

Can soccer programs that bring together Israeli and Palestinian youth make significant differences in the players’ attitudes toward each other? Michael Leitner, Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management, spent a year in Israel acting as the evaluator for three programs that are designed to do just that.

What this is about is to lay the foundations for peaceful relations to become the norm and for peace to become the norm.

This was Leitner’s third extended visit to Israel researching the changing attitudes of Israeli Arabs and Jews toward each other. His first effort, in 1994, was in the area of aging and recreation. He was familiar with previous research that suggested that, although a small percentage of both groups said they hated each other, the majority of each group thought the other hated them. He wondered if it could be that people simply didn’t interact with individuals from the other group.

Other researchers were bringing together children in such social experiments, but no one had really worked with adults, nor measured the results of these experiments. During 1997 and 1998, Leitner developed a program in which senior Israeli Arabs and Jews were brought together in a recreational program. Recreation, said Leitner, is a good setting for this kind of experiment, as just bringing people together does not automatically result in positive outcomes, especially if the setting is one of discussing serious and sensitive issues.

The outcomes of the senior study, in which conditions were created to make all people feel equal and had elements of fun, stimulation, and reward, showed positive change in both Israeli Arabs and Jews: a reduction in feelings of hatred toward the other group and in perceptions of feeling hated, and a mutual increase in positive attitudes.

Leitner, who teaches therapeutic recreation, wanted to apply his experience in evaluating Arab-Jewish interaction to on-going recreational programs with youth on a third yearlong trip to Israel. He contacted three groups: Mifalot, the Peres Center for Peace, and the Friendship Games. Mifalot uses soccer to bring about positive changes in attitudes, and the Peres Center for Peace uses a variety of arts and cultural programs to foster peace. The Friendship Games bring together college-age teams from several Middle Eastern and European countries to play basketball and interact socially for one week.

Mifalot’s program, which Leitner evaluated during the 2011-2012 academic year, called “Get to Know your Neighbor,” involved Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian youth. Youth came together regularly for soccer games and other activities.

Leitner used questionnaires that had been used since the 1970s, which had provided him with good baseline data. He chose eight questions from the much longer original questionnaire. The questions addressed issues of friendship, living proximity, negative characteristics, and trust. Up until Leitner’s effort, evaluation of the success of the three programs hadn’t taken place because there wasn’t money for research and because the kids were supposed to be coming together to play soccer, not to answer questions.

The results of the evaluation were very positive. For example, on the issue of trust: on the pretest in one study, two percent responded that they could trust the other side; on another, seven percent said they could trust the other side. On the post-test, these percentages went up to 40 percent.

Lecture by Michael Leitner “Playing for Peace in the Middle East” Nov. 6, 5p.m. Colusa Hall, Room 100a

Peres Center sports programs bring together Israeli Arab and Jewish youth.

Peres Center sports programs bring together Israeli Arab and Jewish youth.

“That is a nice jump and a change in the right direction,” said Leitner. “It is going to take trust to make peace. It’s not going to solve the problem. What this is about is to lay the foundations for peaceful relations to become the norm and for peace to become the norm. We can’t force peace on people if they hate each other. Leaders need the support of people.”

Similar changes occurred on other questions. Regarding hatred of the other side, both groups expressed less hatred on the post-test than on the pretest, and both groups improved in their responses to the question about perceptions of the other side hating them. For example, the level of Israeli hatred for Arabs went down by almost 14 percentage points, and the level of Arab hatred for Israelis went down by 23 percentage points.

“Although there were skeptics who believed that kids might not be honest in answering the questionnaires, they were wrong,” Leitner says. “The youngest kids were the most honest. They reported a higher level of hate on the pretests than was seen in prior research with teenagers. However, the level of hatred and thinking that the other side hates you went down a great deal on the post-test. In addition, feelings of trust increased dramatically.”

There are benefits to a wider distribution of the results of the studies, says Leitner. He believes, for example, that the perception that Israelis hate Arabs is inaccurate, and, according to the results of his studies, the reverse is also true. In his experience, he has found that there is far more desire and action being taken towards getting along on a day-to-day level than people generally believe. And, the ability of coexistence programs to make change should be of reassurance to all. Leitner would like to see such programs expand. “We have these three programs with thousands of participants. That is just a drop in the bucket.”

For the next three years, Leitner will be directing the evaluation component of a new Mifalot program called "United Soccer for Peace." This program trains Israeli Arab and Jewish soccer coaches in peace education and activities that are designed to lead to a positive change in attitudes. Once certified, the coaches conduct programs in their communities that will bring together Israeli Arab and Jewish youth. There are before- and after-game interactive activities and icebreakers. Since soccer is such a passionate game, the teams are mixed, with both Arab and Jewish players. This program, unlike the "Get to Know Your Neighbor" program, only involves Israelis, not Jordanians and Palestinians.

Leitner is considering creating a Chico team to compete in the Friendship Games, which bring together college-age teams from several Middle Eastern countries and Europe for one week of basketball. It would mean creating a class for study of the Middle East, assisting in the research, and preparing for the trip. 

On Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. in Colusa Hall, the College of Communication and Education is sponsoring a presentation of Leitner’s work, “Playing for Peace in the Middle East.” For more information on Leitner’s study or on his upcoming talk, contact him at 530-898-6774 or mleitner@csuchico.edu.

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications

—Photos courtesy of Michael Leitner.