In Israel, the saying goes that the army is the “great equalizer.” But after almost 10 years of rapid growth, a kids' soccer program that Prince William visited in Tel Aviv Tuesday is trying to challenge that claim.
During the first official visit by a member of the British royal family to Israel, the Duke of Cambridge made time to watch a soccer game cosponsored by the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and The Equalizer – a sports and educational program for marginalized Israeli youth.
For the young Jewish and Arab players, it was their first time playing together in mixed teams rather than as opponents.
Prince William appears to have asked for some distance from the press on the sidelines of Tuesday’s event in order to chat privately with some of the participants, including a group of female players. He also took to the field himself and was pictured taking a penalty kick.
Tomer Hemed, a member of Israel’s national soccer team and the English Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion, also attended the exhibition game and posed alongside the British royal for a group photo.
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Haaretz attended one of The Equalizer’s regional tournaments – in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv – ahead of the royal visit.
“It’s like we’re becoming connected,” said Karam, 12, a first-year program participant from the predominantly Arab city of Baka al-Garbiyeh in northern Israel.
This is the second time I’ve come to a tournament and met Jewish children,” he said. “We play together with good sportsmanship. If someone falls or anything happens to [a Jewish player], someone would come and help him and wish him well.”
“One of the things I like about The Equalizer is to meet children who are talking a different language than me,” said 11-year-old Haim, who is Jewish. “When you play football, you don’t have to talk the same language.”
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The Equalizer, which is partly funded by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, aims to level the playing field for a broad range of Israeli youth. Participants include boys and girls, secular and religious Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs, Bedouin, Druze and new immigrants.
Founded in 2009 with just seven teams and 100 kids, The Equalizer now has 220 teams and 3,500 participants around the country.
“The program is based on the assumption that kids from underprivileged areas of Israel really love soccer, and they usually can't afford to participate in any soccer club or soccer team after school hours,” said The Equalizer's founder and executive director, Liran Gerassi. “We give them this opportunity – but we give them this opportunity with a small condition.”
In order to play at two weekly soccer practices, Equalizer participants also have to attend two weekly after-school study sessions. Once a month, the teams in each region meet and play against each other in a tournament. But since the teams are made up of participants from the same schools, the players are largely segregated by language and religion.
Prior to Prince William’s visit, the only kids who had practiced and competed together in mixed teams were part of a pilot program in Jerusalem during the 2017-2018 school year.
Regardless, Gerassi said he wasn’t worried about Jewish and Arab kids from Jaffa playing together for the first time in front of a royal visitor, because “they live in a mixed city.” (Although Jaffa is now officially part of Tel Aviv, historically it was always an overwhelmingly Arab city in Israel.)
“At the beginning of the year, the kids are a little bit afraid to meet an Arab kid or a Jewish kid – and suddenly they get together once every month or so. They get to learn about each other and they shake hands," Gerassi explains.
“They now can trust each other and see that [the other] is not a monster, he’s a human being just like you.”