How the brotherhood of wave-riders is searching for a solution to one of the world’s most intractable confrontations – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Words: Matthew Olsen
Surfing 4 Peace isn't so much a state of being as a state of mind. Are we really going to solve the problems of the Middle East through surfing? No, maybe not. But according to the logic of this growing grassroots movement, when politicians are unable to make peace between nations, it’s up to us to make peace between peoples.
When over 3000 people showed up for the Surfing 4 Peace Benefit Concert, in October of 2007, Surfing 4 Peace co-founders Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, Arthur Rashkovan and Kelly Slater knew they were on to something. Surfing 4 Peace is an American-Israeli-Palestinian person-to-person initiative created to build communication and cross-border cooperation between the surfing communities of the Middle East and spread the stoke of surfing, starting with the Gaza Strip, Israel's neighbor to the south.
Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz is a legendary surfing ambassador, and is credited as the man who introduced Israel to surfing in the 1950s. Arthur Rashkovan is an Israeli surf industry executive and the go-to guy for all things surf and skate in Israel. Kelly Slater needs no introduction. Surfing 4 Peace is also the lead organization in the joint effort known as The Trinity Project, which includes LA-based Gaza Surf Relief and Explore Corps. Together, this surf-based alliance is hard at work to help bring the joy of surfing to the kids of the war-torn Gaza Strip. Since June of 2007, when Hamas militants took control of the Strip, Gaza has been placed under an economic and travel embargo by Israel and the international community. The aim of the embargo, which limits the flow of goods into Gaza to all but humanitarian relief supplies, is to weaken the grip of Hamas’ hold on power in Gaza through collective punishment. Over a year has passed and the embargo has had little, if any, affect on Hamas or their hold on power, while daily life in Gaza has become more and more difficult.
With the end of the siege nowhere in sight, and with little or no resources on the ground for youth recreation in Gaza, the Trinity Project is gathering the necessary resources to allow Gaza locals to take advantage of the one recreational resource that is open to them: the Mediterranean Sea.
The Med may not have the waves that a proper ocean can provide, but it has plenty of waves and the precedent for surfing in the region is well established. Israel, Gaza's neighbor to the north, has a thriving surf industry with thousands of surfers in the water and a strong local manufacturing sector. Gaza shares the same coast and the same waves but its people lack the access to equipment and the finances to purchase boards, wetsuits, etc. With unemployment in Gaza at or around 80%, surfing is a luxury that most in Gaza simply cannot afford. Seweryn "Sev" Sztalkoper is well aware of this fact and in the summer of 2007 he founded Gaza Surf Relief to help gather donations for the aspiring surfers of Gaza. He has since gathered thousands of dollars in donations, including brand new surfboards, clothing, and related gear. While Sev prepares the donor end, Surfing 4 Peace’s political advisor, and Explore Corps director, Matthew Olsen, has been hard at work on the ground in Gaza organizing the local surfers and helping to establish the Gaza Surf Club. The Surf Club aims to unify Gazan surfers into a defined group for the purpose of securing donations, organizing cross-border events, and engaging in an efficient dialogue with the international surfing community.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Surfing 4 Peace Director Arthur Rashkovan orchestrates the show and keeps everyone on track. In most other situations this type of initiative would be fairly straightforward but with daily rocket and mortar attacks being launched from Gaza into Israel and the constant threat of a major Israeli military incursion into Gaza, the situation is anything but. So, like a general in his own little army of surf do-gooders, Arthur directs the efforts to spread the stoke across the frontlines of war. With the first major shipment of Gaza Surf Relief goods safety delivered to Tel Aviv, the Trinity team must now engage in constant negotiations with the Israeli Army and Civilian Administration to gain permission for the surfboards to be sent into Gaza, despite the ongoing embargo.
Luckily for everyone, Arthur and his team already have experience getting surfboards into Gaza. In August of 2007, Doc Paskowitz led the Surfing 4 Peace team down to the Israel-Gaza border with 14 boards donated by Israeli surf shops. In an event that received worldwide media coverage, Doc led the charge across the border, a board under each arm, to deliver the goods to the eager Palestinian surfers waiting on the other side. The event sent a loud and clear message to surfers and professional peacemakers alike: when the politicians fail to make peace, the people must take it upon themselves to reach out across political divides.
The momentum that it created was evident at the Surfing 4 Peace Benefit Concert, held at the Dolphinarium Beach in Tel Aviv two months later. Attendance was at over 3,000 and the festivities included a sunset paddle-out and surfer's circle for peace, followed by a live show with performances by Kelly Slater, big-wave charger Makua Rothman and local surf band Malka Baya. The highlight of the night was a speech explaining the Surfing 4 Peace initiative given by Doc Paskowitz, who has become a living legend in the Israeli surfing community. The winter of 2007-2008 saw the beginning of the next phase of the Surfing 4 Peace project, with the arrival of the Gaza Surf Relief boards and gear, and the formation of the Gaza Surf Club. As we go to press, the next shipment of boards has arrived and the Trinity team awaits the necessary army permits for their import into Gaza. It could be days or it could be weeks until the paperwork is approved, which is more of a political issue than a military one.But the Trinity crew isn't just sitting around waiting. Gaza Surf Relief is already hard at work gathering the next shipment of donated goods, including wetsuits and soft-top surfboards for an Explore Corps-sponsored Gaza Surf School. Surfing 4 Peace is working with Israeli-Arab surfers to help increase the resources for Israel's poorest Arab neighborhoods and develop sea- and surf-based alternatives for the area's kids. The Trinity team is also working on producing Arabic-language translations of classic surf films, a cross-border music collaboration project, and a skateboard donation program.
In Los Angeles, the editing process has begun for a documentary film called God Went Surfing With The Devil, that follows the efforts of Surfing 4 Peace and the Trinity Project to spread the stoke in the context of war, with an anticipated release later in the year. The title comes from a quote by Doc Paskowitz on the occasion of his cross-border charge to donate the first group of boards: "God will surf with the Devil if the waves are good".
Judging by the leadership of Surfing 4 Peace and the efforts of the Trinity Project, you don't even have to check the surf report to know that, at the grassroots level at least, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is going off.
BIO: Matthew Olsen is an American political consultant and the director of Explore Corps, a California-based non-profit that develops outdoor educational and youth recreational programming in the context of international development. He splits his time between Tel Aviv, where is the political advisor for Surfing 4 Peace, and Gaza, where he works with the Gaza Surf Club and Gaza Surf Relief.
You can find out more at:
Surfing 4 Peace: www.surfing4peace.com/
God Went Surfing With The Devil: www.godwentsurfing.com
Gaza Surf Club: www.gazasurfclub.com
Gaza Surf Relief: www.gazasurfrelief.com
The Trinity Project: www.thetrinityproject.com
Explorer Corps www.explorecorps.org