Group offers new solution to Mid East peace process: Aikido

By Carl Pickerill

Relations in Israel remain tense as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains bedridden and, according to Israeli president Ariel Sharon’s decree, “banned from the holy city of Jerusalem—even in death.” But while tensions boil in the region, a University initiative led by sociology professor Donald Levine is seeking to quell the violence by initiating a fight of his own—martial arts.

Training Across Borders, the program Levine leads, is an international Aikido seminar that will take place in Cyprus in April 2005. Eighty Aikido participants—mainly from Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Greece, and Bosnia—will attend the seminar, which will include classes on martial arts, conflict management, and leadership training.

While the original intent was to facilitate a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, Levine said that other countries with histories of conflict were included to lighten the situation.

“Our initial purpose was to bring Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews together,” Levine said. “Due to some tensions in our initial effort, we decided to reshape the seminar in a more inclusive frame.”

Levine said that the seminar eventually took on a new name and the group is inviting more participants. “We are proceeding to invite participants from Greece and Turkey, Bosnians of all three flavors, and perhaps even participants from Pakistan and India,” he said.

Organizers made a point of not construing any aspect of the seminar with political phraseology to avoid embroiling themselves in political debacles. Because of this, organizers were forced to keep from using such sensitive terms as “peace” or “conflict resolution,” Levine said.

Levine also discussed the University Aikido Club’s trip to the Middle East in September 2004, saying it solidified plans to conduct next April’s Aikido seminar.

“A number of the parties in Israel and Palestine were initially suspicious of our intentions,” Levine said. “They always want to know what types of interest are behind these initiatives.”

But as talks progressed, Palestinians and Israelis embraced Levine’s group and his idea with open arms, prompting a rather unexpected invitation, he said.

“The Palestinians even wanted to take me to meet with Arafat, but with the security roadblocks, that ended up proving impossible,” Levine said.

Levine said that the presence of Soren Beaulieu, a graduate student in sociology and assistant instructor of the University’s Aikido club, eased the process of presenting their ideas by showing participating parties the seminar’s breadth.

Although Beaulieu was not available for comment, Qin Zheng, a chemistry graduate student and vice president of the University Aikido Club, said in an e-mail that club members have been enthusiastic about the seminar.

“The club and its members have donated training weapons and books to the Palestinian dojo, along with a card signed by the entire club,” she said. “We definitely hope that the seminar will help to get our name out, both on campus, and among the Aikido society.”

Levine has had no problems getting the name and fame of his course, “Conflict Theory and Aikido” out into University circles. He said the course, first initiated 18 years ago, provided an important basis for the current work of Training Across Borders.

University undergraduates also seem to have responded well to the course’s main tenets. Jessica Schulte, a third-year in the College, complimented the course and Levine, saying that “he was very good at encouraging us to think of the consequences of how we perceive the world and interact with each other.”

Levine’s interactions with Middle Eastern Aikido organizations in September proved to be fruitful. Financial realities often stop in the way of organizational plans, however, as his group now faces the challenge of securing funds from willing financial backers. For Levine, reality is in California this weekend, as he will be touring Northern California to meet with potential donors.

Levine said that the University Aikido Club practices intensely—as often as three to four times per week. Qin said the club offers students, teachers, and staff a good place to release.

“Personally, I see our club as an organization dedicated to offering more than just self-defense ‘kick ass’ martial arts techniques,” Qin said. “Aikido is an amazing art. We would be really excited if more people could realize that and benefit from it.”

Aikido Club trains on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 7-8:30 p.m., and Saturdays from 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. at the Henry Crown Field House.