“My parents used to put me and my brothers on separate school buses. That way, not all of their children would die in case of a suicide attack. It was during the second intifada. Kids were taken out of the classroom every time there was an attack: a family member had been killed. There were funerals all the time. You could feel a lot of hatred at those funerals. Everyone would curse out Arabs. As a kid, you did not think of them as people. You just thought: they want to kill you.
In 2014, I was about to sign a contract as a coach for a basketball team in Jerusalem. Three Jewish boys had been abducted and killed in the West Bank that summer, the summer of the Gaza war. The situation was very tense. My new employer told me: ‘There will be Arabs in the team’. So I said: ‘No way!’ Two of my brothers were in the army, fighting the war. It was a big no-no.
I still took the job. Why? It was for the money, too. I thought, I am not going to give up thousands of shekels just because of a few Arabs on the team.
I had never spoken to a Palestinian before, ever. I went to a religious school for girls. The teachers would take us to nationalistic protests by bus, where we waved our huge Israeli flags. Two of my brothers live in a settlement, radical ones. I was extremely right wing. I was against lefties.
When I first started coaching the team, I could not stand hearing Arabic. I would tell the girls: ‘Stop, I can’t take it!’ Since then, it has been a long process. There has not been a clear turning point. It became a big thing in my life, meeting Palestinians. They are very good basketball players, so as a coach I want them on the team. I need to know their family, their culture. I even started to learn Arabic. In the team, they need each other. It is mutual.
Many of us are seen as traitors at the matches. Once we were at a kibbutz where the whole community came out. They started yelling ‘Death to Arabs!’ and make fun of the Arab girls on the team. The Jewish girls took it very personally and started crying. Some referees are racist. But it is hard to say anything about it, as you are not supposed to complain about referees.
Looking back, I see it as a feminist thing. Introducing girls to sports. Religious girls, like I used to be myself. I do not see myself as a political activist. I believe in sports as a huge tool for change. It is about empowering young girls. They can become the new leaders of their society.
So, I visit the girls’ families, I work hard to keep them on the team. They have so much going against them: poverty, bad education, traditions. I try to provide them a sense of home. And I want our team to be the best. We are more than just ‘Peace Players’, more than a gimmick. We have to be the very best.”