While 99.9% of the 18,000 people packing Washington’s Verizon Center for the AIPAC Conference on Monday were there to hear Donald Trump, a handful had a different agenda — Israeli baseball.
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That’s because the Israel Association of Baseball was about to make a presentation to the pro-Israel lobby about its Baseball Le’Kulam (Hebrew for “baseball for all”), a program that brings together Jewish children from Modi’in and Arab children from Ramle to play baseball and learn about one another.
“We were squeezed in between Trump and [Ted] Cruz,” explained IAB national director Nate Fish a day after returning to Israel. “It was an interesting slot to be in.”
After Trump left the stage, attendees at the policy conference were treated to a film presentation explaining the special program.
“They loved it. It’s about kids, sports and coexistence,” Fish told Haaretz yesterday. AIPAC also invited two graduates of last year’s Baseball Le’Kulam program, Fadi Abu Swees of Ramle and Niv Eytan of Modi’in. When they came onstage, the place erupted, according to Fish.
“It’s exciting for them to make a connection between the video and the two kids who were there,” he said. Fadi and Niv spoke briefly about the program and how excited they were to be there.
Baseball Le’Kulam consists of six meetings over the course of the baseball season, three overnights and three meetings with the families. Last year, 15 Jewish children and 15 Arab children, all of them in the sixth grade, participated. “We have a partner in the program, Play Global, which is Europe-based and sends in coaches for all the sessions and consulting,” Fish said.
The evening was the first time that AIPAC had featured Israeli baseball at one of its conferences. Last year, there was a presentation about the Israel Football League.
“It offers a nice apolitical alternative and counteracts the political element,” said Fish. “They want to incorporate some kind of athletic program that‘s going on in Israel.”
IAB president Peter Kurz was also at the conference. He told Haaretz that after hosting last year’s football presentation and hearing about Baseball Le’Kulam, the AIPAC conference organizers “were definitely very interested” because of the coexistence element.
“So it was more Baseball Le’Kulam that drew their interest rather than just baseball in Israel,” Kurz stressed yesterday.
He said that one of the most interesting part of the process came in November, when AIPAC sent a professional film crew to shoot the program.
“That was my first exposure to see what the kids were really thinking,” Kurz recalled. “The Jewish kids were talking about coming together with Arab kids for the first time ... and seeing they are the same as we are and have the same thought processes, whereas for the Arab kids, who are a minority and know how to live with Jewish kids, it wasn’t a big deal for them.” Rather, noted Kurz, the fascination for the Arab youths was not meeting Jewish youth “but rather the fascination of playing baseball. So they had different approaches.”
Kurz said it was also eye-opening to be with Fadi’s mother at the conference. “People were talking about Palestinians inciting hatred in the schools and hatred of Israelis,” he said. “I don’t know how much she was understanding but was wondering how it was for a minority person living in a country that is always going to be Jewish.”
As for the presentation, Kurz said the Americans, who have a more romanticized view of Israel, were thrilled and very happy to see Jewish and Arab children working together. The reaction of Israelis there — such as Dan Meridor, a senior Likud figure and a former cabinet minister, and Lucy Aharish, the first Israeli Arab to anchor a Hebrew-language news program — was a bit different.
“They were also happy to see that but a little more realistic and hardened, and they understood this is one program in a very long road that will take us a long time to get there,” said Kurz.
Both Kurz and Fish said the presentation and IAB’s booth at the conference were beneficial to baseball in Israel. They both said they made many new connections they hope can help the league with equipment and field development.
The second year of Baseball Le’Kulam will begin in April, with a new batch of children. Fish said the same number as last year will participate, but they will be fifth-graders this time, to improve their chances of graduating into IAB’s juvenile leagues, for children aged 10 to 12. He said that developmentally, the older children were teens by the time they graduated and going off in their own directions. Still, he said, 10 of the Modi’in graduates are still playing baseball, and the IAB has found a coach to develop the Ramle club. He said the program there is a work in progress, but at least they already have a name —the Ramle Royals.