Jerusalem boxing club unites Jews and Arabs in and out of the ring

Gershon Luxemburg, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, presides over a boxing club in Jerusalem.
Gershon Luxemburg, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, presides over a boxing club in Jerusalem. (Joel Greenberg - The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 9:17 PM

JERUSALEM - In a converted bomb shelter in a low-income Jewish neighborhood, Ismail Jaafari, a Palestinian boxer from across town, bobbed and weaved in the ring, trading punches with an Israeli opponent.

They were sparring at a local boxing club that is something of an anomaly in this ethnically divided city: a place where both Jews and Arabs pursue a shared passion. Palestinians from East Jerusalem have earned their boxing credentials at the club, training with Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants, bearded yeshiva students and settlers from the West Bank.

Presiding over it all is Gershon Luxemburg, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who learned boxing as a boy to repel anti-Semitic assaults and later became a champion boxer in Uzbekistan and several times Israel's light heavyweight champion.

An unabashed nationalist who was jailed more than 20 years ago on charges of stockpiling arms, allegedly for attacks on Arabs, Luxemburg, 66, now preaches tolerance. He accepts all comers to his club, which he says is meant to provide a healthy outlet for youths in troubled neighborhoods.

On a recent evening, Jaafari led a warm-up session, jogging around the gym, trailed by aspiring boxers who ranged in age from young boys to a man in his 60s, and also included two young women. Luxemburg, who shares coaching duties with his brother Eli, a former Soviet champion, barked orders as the boxers went through their paces.

"Before I started coaching, I thought the Arabs were an obstacle for us in this country and that we couldn't live together," Luxemburg said. "But it's hard to believe what sports has done, how it has brought people here together; they've become friends, helping each other out, inviting each other over."

Jaafari, a 36-year-old truck driver, said he had trained at the club for 13 years under Luxemburg's tutelage. "We're more than friends," Jaafari said. "He's like my father."

After Palestinian bombing attacks in Jerusalem, Jaafari recalled, he would stay away from the club to avoid awkward encounters with Israeli club members. Luxemburg would call him, insisting that he show up. "He would tell me: 'Who cares about the political situation outside! We're here, and you're like family.' "

Ramzi Srour, an 18-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem who has trained at the club for eight years, said that the conflict on the streets never disrupted the atmosphere in the boxing gym. "Down in the club, we don't pay attention to the problems upstairs," he said. "This is sports, and we're like brothers."

Luxemburg, who in his day job works as a building superintendent, has taken his Jewish and Arab club members on road trips together to boxing matches, cooking them food and taking them on sightseeing trips. "There were people here who had never even met an Arab, and only saw them on TV throwing stones," Luxemburg said. "Suddenly they're sitting together, talking to one another as human beings."

Urged by Luxemburg to create an alternative to street life for youngsters in his own community, Jaafari opened a boxing and karate club in his East Jerusalem neighborhood, and its members regularly travel to the Jewish side of town for sparring matches in Luxemburg's gym. Boxers trained by Jaafari have taken top places in Palestinian championships in the West Bank, and one traveled to Jordan as a member of a national squad.

Jaafari, who has competed in Israeli championships, said that "sports crosses borders." "Politics is a dirty business that should be put aside," he added. "We get along fine."

For the Israeli boxers in Luxemburg's club, the presence of the Palestinians is completely unremarkable.

"They're my friends," said Yotam Mirzai, who lives in the Israeli settlement town of Maaleh Adumim in the West Bank, near Jerusalem. "In the ring we're all just people, and in competitions it doesn't matter where you're from."

The distinction between the political and the personal, Luxemburg says, is the key. He recalled how, at the height of Israeli-Palestinian violence several years ago, he would regularly bring clothes, food and money to a Palestinian from the West Bank who had worked for him but could not reach his job because of Israeli border closures.

"There are enemies, and there are friends," he said. "Whoever comes at you with a weapon should get what he deserves, but a friend is a friend. There's war, and then there's life, and we can manage."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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