Backgammon Tournaments Bring Jews And Arabs Together In Jerusalem

This has been ongoing since the spring 2016 kick-off of the Jerusalem Double, a backgammon tournament started by Kulna Yerushalayim (We Are All Jerusalem).

Close-up of a man and woman competing in backgammon.

Apparently, the game of backgammon is an excellent tool to build bridges between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem.

The game — which has been played for thousands of years — has long been popular within Arab and Jewish communities, respectively, but now they are playing with each other, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports.

This has been ongoing since the spring 2016 kick-off of the Jerusalem Double, which is a backgammon tournament organized by a nonprofit group that aims to bring Jews and Arabs together in non-hostile and nonpolitical environments. The group is called Kulna Yerushalayim (We Are All Jerusalem). 

“This is not a competition between enemies. We just want to come and play,” said Matan Hayat, 28, a religious school teacher in Jerusalem. “Here we have leftists, right-wingers, Orthodox Jews and Arab Muslims. We have all become friends.”

Zaki Djemal is a London-born Israeli entrepreneur who founded Kulna Yerushalayim with friends seven years ago.

Djemal explained why backgammon, known as “shesh-besh” in Hebrew and Arabic, is the perfect activity to connect Arabs and Jews.

“In Israel, backgammon resonates with a lot of people because it’s so well-known and everyone has a backgammon story,” Djemal said. “Maybe their grandfather taught them, or they learned in miluim [army reserves]. On the Arab side, it’s been around for years. It’s a game of the Middle East. It speaks to people. It’s super accessible, it’s fun, it’s engaging, and it offers a way to engage Jews and Arabs in a refreshing, nuanced way.”

In addition to the Jerusalem Double, the organization hosts other events, including Arabic-language tours of western Jerusalem landmarks, such as the Israel Museum, for Arabs in the city who haven’t voyaged into many Jewish parts of town.

Over the last seven years, the group has grown significantly.

“So far, more than 6,000 people have come to our events, and there’s an even broader following online,” said Djemal who is also a Harvard graduate who studied behavioral economics.

Making Kulna Yerushalayim’s efforts even more accessible and welcoming is the fact that their events are all free. They have hosted approximately 30 backgammon tournaments, which are actually only partially competition-related. The other part of the event is a concert.

“Part of the success of our project is that we’ve been able to rally support from across political lines,” Djemal said.

However, things aren’t always happy and friendly as political tensions between Arabs and Jews still exist, particularly as the Israel-Palestine conflict worsens. This unfortunate circumstance sometimes interferes with the peaceful nature of Kulna Yerushalayim’s initiative.

For example, the group had a backgammon tournament scheduled on the very same day that President Donald Trump announced his plans to move the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and all of the Arab participants backed out of the competition.

“We canceled it because our Arab partners said it would be inappropriate to celebrate anything on that day,” Djemal said. “For every small step we make, a statement like that can take us millions of steps back.”

Despite some setbacks, the organization continues pushing forward with its mission. In fact, this month for Ramadan, the group has been passing out dates and water to the city’s Muslim community each evening when the fast ends.

“At the end of the day, people just want to live their lives on both sides,” Djemal said. “The vast majority of people don’t support violence; these are the people we’re working with."

He added: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a huge, massive problem we don’t know how to approach. But when you focus on small victories that can improve relationships on a grassroots level, you see lots of meaningful results.”

Djemal summed it up perfectly, and it's incredibly refreshing that there are people on the ground doing the work to bring people together in spite of their differences.

Who knew that a simple game could be the key to turning around a tumultuous relationship between two groups of people for the better? 

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