JERUSALEM (AP) — It’s early in a scoreless Israel Bowl and a crowd that includes armed soldiers, ultra-Orthodox Jews and skullcapped settlers waving Israeli flags erupts in celebration after Palestinian linebacker Ayoub Elayyan intercepts a pass.
His Gush Texas Judean Rebel teammates quickly convert the turnover into a touchdown and never look back, racing to a 32-30 victory in the title game of the Israel Football League.
A week after five members of a Jewish West Bank settler family were killed in a knife attack, Jerusalem’s Kraft Field is likely the only place in the Holy Land you’ll find Palestinians and settlers embracing.
But that’s what happened after Elayyan and his two brothers helped a team of mostly Jewish settlers win the championship of Israel’s amateur American football league. As the team’s diverse fan base stormed the field, an offensive lineman with sidelocks and a skullcap typical of strictly observant Jews bearhugged Ayoub’s older brother Musa, a 21-year-old defensive lineman from the West Bank city of Ramallah
“We play as a team and leave our personal stuff on the side. If they can do it, I can too,” said Musa Elayyan, called “Moose” by his teammates. “Once you’ve played together you create a bond, especially on a successful team.”
Steve Leibowitz, the founder of the 4-year-old league, calls the concept “peace under the helmet.” He says the Middle Eastern mindset lends itself well to the game, with players drawn to both its physical and strategic nature.
“We are the only Israeli league of any kind that has any Palestinian players and I’m proud of that fact,” he said. “We were concerned about the politics, but it just hasn’t been an issue.”
Some of the initial concerns were specifically about the Rebels. They chose orange as their team color, adopting a symbol of the Jewish settlers in Gaza who were removed in 2005, and posted political statements on their website.
But after the coach kicked out a few players who had reservations about playing with Palestinians, Elayyan said the team quickly jelled, capturing the crown of the eight-team league in only its second year. He now considers his teammates to be among his best friends.
“A lot of their views changed after we joined,” said Elayyan, who played high school football in Colorado Springs, Colo. “You can never fully drop the politics, but the football field is a haven.”
Itay Ashkenazi agrees. The quarterback of the Jerusalem Lions is one of the league’s elite players. The 31-year-old son of Israel’s recently retired military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, compared the gridiron camaraderie to that of his military combat experience.
“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,” Ashkenazi said. “Football is a terrific tool of creating a bridge, creating a dialogue between people. … This connection creates a fraternity of warriors.”
American football is still an afterthought on the Israeli sports scene, but it has gained ground in recent years thanks to live NFL TV broadcasts and the expansion of the IFL.
This year’s Israel Bowl attracted over 1,000 fans and was broadcast live on the Israel’s sports channel. The game was played at Kraft Stadium, named for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who donates $70,000 a year to the league.
“Our family is about building bridges between people of different backgrounds. I’ve always been confused why religion has caused such strife among people,” Kraft said. “To me, it’s just different paths to the same end place.”
The artificial turf includes a Patriots logo at midfield and Patriots memorabilia in the offices. Tom Brady and other Patriots stars have visited in recent years.
“For me, the biggest turn-on is to see Palestinians and Jewish people playing the game together and being on the same team,” Kraft said. “… You solve problems by creating jobs for people and by getting people to interact with one another and know each other as human beings and so that’s the turn-on for me here.”
Kraft cited his experience after New England won its first Super Bowl in 2002 as an example.
“Boston is a city of 600,000 people and we had a million and a half people come together in the streets of Boston — black, white, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, gay, lesbian, straight, fat, thin, tall, short, money manager, factory worker — and they are all for the same cause,” he said. “And so I think it’s wonderful that in this game we’re able to have people of different backgrounds playing.”
Unlike their counterparts at Gillette Stadium, the fans in Jerusalem are known to pull out a shofar and blow the ram’s horn to spur on their team. At the Israel Bowl, children wore costumes and wigs in celebration of the Jewish festival of Purim.
The level of play still resembles that in an American high school game, but some 1,500 players playing on 90 youth and flag football teams offers hopes for improvement.
While the champion Rebels are of mostly American stock, the language in the huddle of the runner-up Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres is Hebrew. It also is a mixed Israeli-Arab team and its captain is an Israeli Arab from Jaffa.
Bishara Zakak, a 26-year-old former Sabre tight end cheering in Arabic from the sideline, said the team is proof that Jews and Arabs can coexist.
“In sports, you need discipline, you need to learn how to restrain yourself. Anyone can go tackle someone, but a good player knows how to tackle smart,” he said. “Banging heads in not always the right thing to do. You have to think about the team and not just about yourself.”