EILAT, Israel — A pair of septuagenarians — one Israeli, the other Jordanian — merely sitting together to watch a basketball game and enjoy each other’s company is difficult for many Americans to appreciate. Such collegiality remains a safety risk in some corners of the region, nearly a generation after the nations’ historic peace accord.
Yet, the sight of 78-year-old Arie Rosenzweig, a former athletic director at Tel Aviv University, and retired Jordanian Gen. Mansour Abu Rashid, 71, together at the Friendship Games is not only a byproduct of a decade working together, but also, more broadly, a beacon for the event’s younger participants: If these men, after years of being told the other side was the enemy, can forge a lasting friendship through sports, then so can everyone else.
“I can tell you that one of the highlights for me is my relationship with my colleague from Jordan,” said Rosenzweig, the Games organizer, while gesturing to Rashid. “For me to fly to Jordan, it's like for you to go to the moon. You must understand: Not long ago we only think how to avoid each other, not to start war. But now we are at peace.”
Such retrospectives are appropriate following the 12th annual Friendship Games, a week-long basketball tournament and cross-cultural gathering that brings together college-aged athletes from all over the Middle East, Europe and Russia with the goal of promoting peace and understanding.
“I think there’s a respect on both sides,” said Friendship Games sponsor Ed Peskowitz, also a former co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks. “[I think Rosenzweig has] respect for his courage and his commitment and perseverance with programs like the Friendship Games. For Monsour, I think it’s respect that Arie has an open mind and wants to build bridges in the region and do that through young people.”
Rashid originally joined the Games to help bring in Jordanian students, though neither Rosenzweig nor Rashid remember the exact circumstances of their first meeting.
“It develops within the years,” Rosenzweig said of his friendship with Rashid. “You find out that he’s capable. He’s a man of honor. He doesn’t tell you lies. That’s the most important thing.”
The histories of Jordan and Israel are tied to their tenuous existence, after they respectively declared independence in 1946 and 1948. For nearly the next five decades, even when they weren’t in combat, Jordan and Israel were at war; their borders were closed to one another.
“When you grow up as a child in Israel, it was difficult to understand that somebody has friends in the other country,” Rosenzweig said. “But it happened, and that’s why the Games are so successful. When the kids meet and see that these are normal people, that’s the secret of the Games. Bringing them together, different nationalities, different religions, but all human beings.”
Rosenzweig spent 24 years as Tel Aviv University’s athletic director, before joining Israel’s Olympic Committee in 2000. He also served as president of the Organizing Committee for the 1989 and 1993 World Maccabiah Games, and co-founded the North American Maccabi Youth Games in 2008, which today include as many as 6,000 participants. He was given the 2016 Chairman’s Award of Excellence from the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
But for all his contributions to international sporting events, he had never been friends with a Jordanian before meeting Rashid.
Once an Israeli prisoner of war, Rashid served as Jordan’s Director of Military Intelligence and was a key player in the peace talks between Jordan and Israel. Rashid presented the Israel-Jordan peace treaty on Oct. 26, 1994, to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein in front of President Bill Clinton.