A Black Belt in Understanding

Martial arts expert Danny Hakim believes that traditional Japanese Budo can help Arab and Jewish children bridge cultural and political differences. To some the idea of using martial arts to engender peace and harmony may seem downright contradictory. But Danny …

Martial arts expert Danny Hakim believes that traditional Japanese Budo can help Arab and Jewish children bridge cultural and political differences. To some the idea of using martial arts to engender peace and harmony may seem downright contradictory. But Danny Hakim has been harnessing the positive attributes of karate for just that purpose for several years and with great success.

This summer, he assembled equal numbers of Israeli Jews from Be’ersheva, Israeli Arabs from Bueina-Nujeidat in the Galilee and Palestinians from east Jerusalem for a karate seminar. The 105 young martial arts students and practitioners, aged 8-17, gathered at the Wingate Institute of Sport near Netanya for a unique three-day experience for practitioners at all levels of skill and experience. The event took place under the banner of “Focus On Conquering Fear of The Other and Building Trust” with the program featuring discussion groups and other activities, such as Japanese calligraphy, aimed at enhancing the young participants’ understanding of the basic values of traditional Japanese martial acts.

When it comes to credentials for putting together such an event, Hakim has them in abundance. The 46-year-old Australian-born Israeli has been honing his skills as a martial arts expert for almost 40 years. In the 1980s, he represented Australia at the Maccabiah Games, and was a silver medal winner for his native country in the world championships. He subsequently spent 10 years as a resident of Japan and won a gold medal for his then adopted country in other major international tournaments. And, although, he only moved to Israel four years ago, in fact he has a strong familial bond with this part of the world. “My family lived in Safed for seven generations, and my grandfather was the chief rabbi there,” explains Hakim. “In a way I consider myself a returning Palestinian refugee because my grandfather had to leave Safed because of the trouble with the Arabs at the turn of the twentieth century.”

Since “returning” to Israel, Hakim has set up the Budo For Peace Association (BFPA) which, he says, is designed “to bring youth from conflict areas together to participate in traditional Japanese Budo, to learn its intrinsic values and, as a result, help them break down the barriers to co-existence”. “Budo”, loosely translated, implies a way to resolve dispute. “Bu”, in Japanese, means “stop, end conflict” and “do” means “the path”.

“The values of budo are self-control, respect, harmony within yourself and other people and building character,” Hakim explains. “It’s a lot deeper than just an ordinary sport.”

Hakim works with Jewish and Arab Israeli youth around the country, from Ra’anana, Herzliya, Be’ersheva, Jerusalem and the Galilee, some of whom were at the three-day meet at Wingate.

According to Hakim practicing martial arts together generates an added value of shared experience that can help to bridge cultural, political and other differences. “Think about it. All these kids, including religious Moslem girls, wore the same clothes – white karate suits – and used words and gestures from a neutral third culture. It’s about breaking down barriers. This common culture is like a safe reference point and makes it easy for the children to practice the harmonizing values of budo. Through martial arts training and understanding of traditional Japanese budo values, the youth enrolled in the program were taught to convert both internal and external conflict into harmonious behavior.”

Each of the groups of youths built up to the Wingate seminar by attending twice-weekly two hour training sessions, which incorporated 90 minutes of physical practice and 30 minutes of discussion of budo values. “These young kids all bow to each other before they start the karate movements,”says Hakim. “It’s a mark of respect. So, in the discussions, we talked about respect.”

Hakim employs a semantic code he feels can be utilized to constructive effect outside the karate domain, both in the Middle East and in the world?s other areas of conflict. “In karate you don’t talk about fighting your ‘opponent’ or ‘enemy,’ you talk about your ‘partner’. If someone attacks you softly, you’re going to learn to block softly, and the same applies if you use more strength. It’s a bit like ying and yang. You complement each other.?

The seminar also operated on hierarchical lines, based on the intrinsic order of the martial arts, designed to produce positive long-term effects.

“The junior kids in the program looked up to the seniors. They, in turn, looked up to the instructors, and they looked up to me. Children are easier to direct. They could grow up to be either stone throwers or terrorists, on either side. I am trying to get the message across that children without a positive influence are likely to become radicals.”

That hierarchy was also used to good effect at Wingate in bridging cultural discrepancies and dissipating mistrust. “We arranged things so that there were Arab seniors working with Jewish juniors, as vice versa. The kids got to know each other, and to trust and respect each other.”

Hakim also talks about empowerment, and how the martial arts can help to boost self-esteem, and even help to overcome trauma. “I also work with new immigrants in Israel who have been victims of terror attacks,” he says. “As there are many new immigrants who use public transport a disproportionate high number of them have been hurt in attacks. Martial arts can help to rebuild their self-confidence and make them feel stronger, rather than weak and defenseless. That’s very important.”

Hakim is not confining his bridging efforts to this region alone. “I’m putting together a program to make the senior karate grades ambassadors for peace. They will be trained in teaching budo values and conflict resolution, and will be citizens who will not be afraid to stand up and be counted. I’m not just talking about the Middle East. I’ve already received requests from Cyprus and Kosovo, and even Sri Lanka. They already have an infrastructure in these places. For now I’m concentrating on Israel but the concept can be transposed to other parts of the world.”

The Wingate seminar was organized under the auspices of the Japanese government, and Hakim’s other efforts are sponsored by the British-based One To One Children’s Fund whose patrons include British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Egyptian movie star Omar Sharif and Terry Waite, the former Archbishop of Canterbury envoy who was imprisoned in Lebanon for four years in the late 1980s.

Another seminar is scheduled to take place at Wingate in September and Hakim intends to put his budo show on the international map in the near future. “One day, maybe, there will be no need for armies and we’ll be able to settle our differences in a more harmonious way. You know [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a black belt in judo and I’ve talked to Gilad Sher, who was one of [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak’s chief negotiators during the talks with Yasser Arafat in America. Sher is a black belt in karate.”

Hakim would like to get the political establishment aboard on his peace train, in a very hands-on way. “I think if we get some more politicians involved it can help. People that get to black belt understand the basic philosophy of respect and self-control. Through those basic, common, values we can break down ignorance and discuss fear. We fear the Palestinians, and they fear us. When you learn about a martial art you’re learning about fear, and when you learn about fear together it’s very empowering and bonding. Then the fear goes away. The kids I work with inspire me.”