Zaki Djemal, a former Bostonian and Israeli entrepreneur, lives in Jerusalem, a bustling city with thousands of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians. Yet, while they share the same physical space, their lives are worlds apart.
Ever the entrepreneur, Zaki saw an opportunity when a night of discussion among Jewish and Muslim friends turned heated: to introduce a children’s game with Middle Eastern origins as a tool for coexistence. The result—Jerusalem Double—has brought together hundreds of Jerusalemites for a night of friendly competition and empathy building.
israel360 users had a chance to chat live with Zaki on June 6. The conversation is highlighted below.
israel360 user: I’m very excited to hear what you have to say about Jerusalem Double. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea?
Zaki: It all started a year ago. I was sitting together with Jewish and Arab friends and we were there to discuss a project to bring Jews and Arabs together around music. Somewhere during this discussion, we got into a heated debate. In the middle of that, a friend suggested we take a break, relax, return to the discussion later and play something. He suggested backgammon. Both our Jewish and Arab friends knew the rules. It’s been played for a long time in the region. We didn’t have any bigger plans other than playing. As we started playing, all of this tension we felt in this discussion was suddenly diffused. The original debate was forgotten. We saw there was real power in playing a game. We thought: This is working so effectively with us, why not scale and expand it? That’s how the idea was born. It’s moved from that living room and involved thousands of people.
israel360 user: My backgammon games used to get pretty hostile. But we were kids. How are games building empathy? What does that look like?
Zaki: Really good question. Games have a remarkable propensity for creating empathy among strangers. There are studies on this that show how quickly they create empathy. Why it happens, what happens under the hood, isn’t entirely clear. It’s very “in the moment.” Two people connecting at a human level has the ability to create that empathy you don’t have otherwise. Backgammon in this region is the exactly perfect game. People know the rules and it’s culturally fitting to play a fast-paced game, luck is involved, anyone can play, anyone can win, rules are really simple. Together it creates a unique, interesting interaction. They celebrate what they have in common, celebrate the moment, and not worry about the issues that cause tension.
israel360 user: I think there are certain people in Israel—both Palestinians and Israelis—who are into coexistence experiments and so forth, and a huge number who basically have nothing to do with “the other” in everyday life. Are you breaking through to those people? How can you tell that you’re getting people who normally don’t do this kind of thing?
Zaki: Yes. But it took time to convince people that this effort was worth their while. We had one guy, a Jewish guy, who said he would do it, then had a lot of excuses, but we insisted, and that’s where the backgammon came into play. He didn’t want to go to this neighborhood. Jews rarely go there and he was nervous. Backgammon was the key. We have played since we were children. It’s deeply rooted in our lives, in our families’ lives. [IDF] reservists play this. The same is true on the Israeli Arab/Palestinian side. Having something familiar to start off with helps with those concerns. On the Arab side, there’s some concern in participating in initiatives to normalize a status quo that they see as unjust or problematic. There’s a movement against those initiatives, that they distract from the issue of Israel’s occupation. Playing a game, interacting, is a distraction. But what helps us address it is having strong partners, like the ones from East Jerusalem, who also want this to succeed.
israel360 user: Which side—Israelis or Palestinians—are more hesitant to participate? What about location? Do you alternate Jewish/Palestinian neighborhoods? How does that go?
Zaki: We have had concerns on both sides in the early days of Jerusalem Double because the idea was so foreign to the players. They had never crossed these sociological/neighborhood divides before. There’s no crossover between these neighborhoods. So we try to remove barriers to participation as much as we possibly can. We set up car shares to make sure they arrive at the right location, and help to remove some of that uncertainty that is such a barrier to this project. Regarding security, we have never had any threats—at this point. It might have to do with the strong partners we have in East Jerusalem. One is the son of the former pulpit speaker at Dome of the Rock, a prominent Muslim religious leader, who has been involved in the project since day one. Having him on board was a signal to the local population that this is serious, friendly and it diffused tension on the Israeli Arab/Palestinian side.
israel360 user: Once people meet for the night, what, if any, follow up is there? What’s the long game for a project like this?
Zaki: We were blown away by how big this has become. We are organizing the Middle East Backgammon Championships. We will be flying the top 10 players from around the world for this tournament, engaging 600 players from around the region to turn Jerusalem into a backgammon capital for the world. We have funding and support, and it’s an exciting development to be able to scale up like this. We’ve started a bunch of other cultural activities to bring Jews and Arabs together—music, cooking groups, other things in the same category—that are bringing people together around cultural platforms.
Read the full conversation on israel360.