Prof takes recreational route to peace in Middle East

Michael Leitner is trying to bring peace to the Middle East. But not through guns and military force — through soccer balls and Pictionary.

A recreation and parks management professor at California State Chico, where he lives, Leitner is convinced recreation plays a significant role in bringing Jews and Arabs together.

Through ongoing research, he has found that Arabs and Jews in Israel who participate in intergenerational recreational programs together not only develop better attitudes toward one another, but continue to have less animosity for at least a year afterward.

His findings are published in the latest issue of the World Leisure and Recreation journal.

"When people have fun together, they feel better towards each other," said Leitner, who is living in Israel for the summer while he teaches at Zimmerman College near Netanya. "People really bond when they share a laugh together. There's a lesson to be learned from that."

Leitner's initial research began in the summer of 1998 and was funded through the Feldman Foundation in Dallas, California State University and the Research Foundation of Zimmerman College, which is part of the Wingate Institute.

First, he surveyed close to 100 elderly Arabs and Jews about their opinions of one another. He found that a high percentage of Arabs assumed that most or all Jews hated Arabs and vice versa. The surveys also found a high level of distrust and animosity between the two parties.

Over a four-month period, a portion of the elderly surveyed participated in recreational programs with Arab children and Jewish college students. Activities included throwing and catching games, exercise, seated relay races, Pictionary and folk dancing.

Another portion of those surveyed, the control group, did not participate.

Because the majority of participating elders did not speak each other's language, most interaction was non-verbal. But despite the language barrier, "people were laughing and smiling and really sharing a lot of enthusiasm," Leitner said.

"In the beginning it didn't seem too successful — but things changed," he added. "By the end of the session everyone was holding hands and laughing."

When the session ended, a high percentage of those Arabs and Jews who participated in the activities had significantly softened their views toward one another. But those in the control group had no attitude change.

When the same groups were surveyed again in 1999, a year later, Leitner said the results were the same.

Those findings teach a valuable lesson, he said.

"The only way we're going to get the Jews and Arabs to trust each other is if they develop good feelings towards one another. We need to start by bringing them together on a grassroots level."

He hopes to promote his research on a larger scale so that more and more Jews and Arabs will see its value.

"Israel is a small country," said Leitner. "I may have to work bit by bit, but as people read about it, hear more about it and it gains more attention…it might change attitudes."

While Leitner said he has seen similar programs implemented in Israel, he thinks his was more successful because "Jews and Arabs [were] working together towards a common goal" and on "an equal playing field" rather than "opposing teams."

"No one was thinking, this one is an Arab, this one is a Jew; this one is rich, this one is poor; this one is young, this one is old. I wanted them to be in a situation where they felt free of class and social restrictions — integrated in cooperative tasks."

Leitner, whose research interests involve the impacts of cross-generational recreation, received a doctorate from the University of Maryland. His dissertation was written on the effects of children's presence on senior citizens during a music activities program.

He credits the intergenerational component of his Israeli study as another reason for its success.

"In Israel, elders are held in high regard," said Leitner. "My feeling was that by having the youth see the elderly interact with one another, their own attitudes would get influenced.

"As for the saying that you can't teach an old dog new tricks — we dispelled that myth."