SYDNEY: The barefoot, black-belted martial arts experts flick high kicks and aim straight-elbowed arm thrusts at each other, but it is their handshakes that draw gasps and applause from spectators.
Taking its name from the Japanese expression for “the way of stopping conflict”, an organisation called Budo for Peace gave crowds at last month's Shotokan Karate-do International Federation world championships in Sydney more than just a physical exhibition.
An Israeli group, it brings together Jews, Arabs and Palestinians in its mission to use traditional martial arts to build trust between people and help engender a more tolerant global society.
“We teach moral values based on the philosophy of martial arts, like respect, self-control, harmony,” said Danny Hakim, founder of the group.
“The whole idea is to be able to create harmony within yourself, and with that you are able to create harmony with other people.”The organisation started off in the Middle East and Australian-born Hakim said given the recent violence in Gaza, his mission was more important than ever despite worries about loved ones back home.
“When things flared up... it was very difficult for us, all of us,” he said.
“My wife and two kids are there (in Israel), and they cannot sleep. And Abed, my Palestinian (Budo) partner, all his kids and grandkids.... We're all very worried.
“But it brought us even closer together and it gives our mission stronger importance.”Hakim stresses the group -- which started in Israel with Arab, Jewish and Palestinian chapters -- is not a political organisation, saying: “We're just doing our thing.”
About 400 people are now involved in Israel and a further 300 in Jordan, while there is a fledgling group in Turkey. Budo for Peace plans to expand globally after interest from countries such as Morocco, Kenya and Tunisia.
Hakim says while the group brings together people from very different groups -- bedouins and orthodox Jews being among instructors -- when they come together to practise martial arts, such differences are forgotten.
“What we do in Budo for Peace, it doesn't matter what you are, Jewish or Arab or Ethiopian or anything else, or what is your religion,” said Arab Israeli Hanan Drawshi, who is an instructor with the group.
“But in this special language, this unique language we do together, we can bring peace to ourselves and to others in the community.”The 25-year-old, who is from northern Israel near Nazareth, said she became interested in karate as a child after watching it on television.
As an adult, she sees not only its physical but also its personal benefits. “Martial arts is also a way to do many things, not just sport,” she said.
“We have many conflicts between Jewish and Arab people and between ourselves also, so I think to do these things in a difficult political space... is a unique thing.”
But there was a bittersweet catch for Drawshi in her visit to Australia, where she had been set to compete at the world championships at Sydney's Olympic Park Sports Centre.
Because her white hijab did not meet the Shotokan Karate-do International Federation regulations, she could not take to the mats.
Other Muslim women were able to compete wearing an approved headscarf, but because it exposes the neck Drawshi does not wear it.
“They say it's for safety,” she says. “It's not fair.”