In Jerusalem, Swimming in the Same Pool, but in Different Lanes

The rule was unspoken, but the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in the Greater Jerusalem swim club had abided by it forever without even thinking.

No politics in the pool.

They lived on opposite sides of Jerusalem, coming together six afternoons a week to train in lanes reserved for their team at the Y.M.C.A. After two hours of laps, they plunged into a Jacuzzi, where they joshed for a few minutes before calling it a day.

They swam together, went on beach outings together, barbecued together. The best Jewish swimmers represented Israel in international meets. The best swimmers from East Jerusalem competed for a team comprising Palestinians at meets in the Arab world.

“We don’t think about the team as Israelis and Palestinians,” said Avishag Ozeri, 16, an Israeli swimmer who recalled being taught to swim by a Palestinian from East Jerusalem.

“It is so normal to be together,” she said before a recent practice. “It’s weird even talking about it.”

But then came the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks, the Israel bombardment of Gaza that followed, and a series of social media interactions that would test the team’s unspoken rule.

Swimming Together, ‘Just Human Beings’

The swimmers train at the Y.M.C.A., a Christian nonprofit open to people of all faiths, in the heart of Jewish West Jerusalem, and Emanuel May has been the team’s volunteer coach for years.

An experienced coach with a gentle demeanor, May, 70, was raised in a farm collective, known as a kibbutz. Although he has trained champion swimmers, he said his passion was not to produce winners. It’s to foster unity among young people in Jerusalem, a city where Israelis and Palestinians regularly interact in the daily life of shops, restaurants and university classrooms but remain divided by festering conflict.

“The spirt here is to swim together, just human beings,” he said.

Emanuel May, a volunteer coach at the Greater Jerusalem swim club, instructing his group at the Y.M.C.A. this month.

Four years ago, the team, which operates on a shoestring budget, came to the attention of Shai Doron, the president of the Jerusalem Foundation. The mission of the organization, supported by philanthropists around the world, is to improve the city for its almost one million residents. Bridging religious and cultural divides is a core priority, May said.

After the war in Gaza ends, he said, “the 400,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not going anywhere,” he said. “The Jews will go nowhere.”

Doron acknowledges the tension in Jerusalem — particularly at the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, and sacred to both as home to the Western Wall and the Aqsa mosque. But in his vision, Jerusalem “can create the model for shared living and coexistence.”

The Jerusalem Foundation supported the Greater Jerusalem swimmers with a small grant. What appealed to him about the swim team, Doron said, was that, as he sees it, “swimming brings people together in the most natural way.”

Members of the swim club in the Jacuzzi at the Y.M.C.A.

In the pool, Doron said, “It’s impossible to tell who’s a Jew and an Arab. There are no symbols that identify you, like a skullcap or a hijab. You’re almost naked.”

At the Y.M.C.A., younger Israeli and Palestinian children take swim lessons separately, because they lack a common language. Once they are about 8 or 9 and communicating in Hebrew and English, they begin to work out together. The strongest swimmers join the Greater Jerusalem team.

On a recent Sunday, Shams Srour, 14, a Palestinian girl, said she aspired to do just that.

“I want to compete, and I feel very comfortable here,” she said. “I’ve been training with Jews since I was little. It’s normal.”

Responding to the Oct. 7 Attacks

The Oct. 7 attacks tested that normalcy in ways that the team is still processing.

That day, Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip breached the border, killed more than 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers, took over 200 hostages and hurt countless others, according to the Israeli authorities. Videos show them rampaging through villages, torching houses, shooting at civilians at close range and hunting down partygoers at an outdoor concert.

Most institutions in Israel, including the Y.M.C.A., immediately shuttered their doors amid a national emergency.

The next day, Mustafa Abdu, 18, one of the Muslim swimmers on the Greater Jerusalem team, uploaded a photograph to his Instagram account. The photo showed an angelic, unidentified Palestinian child being carried by men wearing anguished expressions. The child was enshrouded in a white cloth that Muslims use for the deceased.

Mustafa Abdu, a Palestinian swimmer, warming up before practice.

A caption above the picture read, “Where were the people calling for humanity when we were killed?”

Mustafa also posted a blurb in stark block letters that said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The swimmers on the team follow one another on Instagram, and Avishag recalled being shocked when she spotted the posts. She immediately called Shira Chuna, a 16-year-old teammate, to express her outrage, although she didn’t tell her parents or anyone else.

Then she texted Mustafa in an exchange that she later shared with The New York Times.

“Musta, do you know how bad the situation is in Israel right now? I respect what you have to say, I’m truly asking you.”

Mustafa replied: Did she think, like some people on social media, that all Palestinians were murderers?

“I didn’t say you were Musta,” Avishag wrote back. “It’s the Hamas organization. And my people have been murdered by the Hamas.”

Children, older people, entire families had been slaughtered or kidnapped, she said. “I saw videos that are never going to leave my mind,” she said, offering to forward them if he wanted, but saying that she didn’t recommend watching them.

“Av,” he wrote, “first thing, we are not the murder,” he said. “Israel was attacking us from a long time, and everybody know that.”

“What???,” she asked. “With all the respect, that’s not true.”

He said, “Always we are wrong and always you are the right.”

“That’s not what I said,” Avishag responded. “Right now Hamas are in the wrong.”

She told him to tell her if he wanted the videos. She wanted to prove her point, but also to preserve their friendship. She texted him, “I have to ask if we are cool?”

He placed a heart on her message and typed “yes” in Spanish. She hearted his message, too. It seemed they had achieved an uneasy peace, although they couldn’t be sure until they swam together again.

Shira Chuna, left, and Avishag Ozeri before swim practice.

In ensuing days, Israel launched a series of airstrikes on Gaza and continued to block food, fuel and other supplies from reaching the two million people crowded into the narrow strip of land hemmed between Israel and Egypt. Hamas continued to fire rockets at Israel, and an invasion by the Israeli Army was imminent.

On Oct. 11 came another Instagram post, this one from a different Palestinian member of the swim team. “The victory of Allah is near,” the post said. (The swimmer did not agree to participate in this article.)

When Shira saw what he had written, she recalled, “I felt like they betrayed our friendship, like I trust them so much.”

She had always had good relations with her Palestinian neighbors. After Shira was born, a Palestinian friend of her father brought the family money, a traditional gift among Muslims. When Shira told her parents about the Instagram posts, they said that given the fraught history between the two communities, “You don’t need to be surprised.”

As soon as May, the team’s coach, learned about the posts shared by Mustafa and the other swimmer, he promptly contacted them. Both immediately deleted the posts.

“I took it down, because I respect them,” Mustafa said in an interview after practice in early November. “I don’t want to talk about the war. I just want to talk about swimming.”

A Team Meeting

By the time the Greater Jerusalem swimmers reported to the pool again on Oct. 16, the death toll from Israeli bombardments in Gaza was reported to be 3,000 and rapidly rising. The atrocities that Hamas had committed also continued to convulse Israeli society.

But would the conflict breach the two Y.M.C.A. lanes allotted to the team?

“I told myself, I’m going to behave as normal,’’ said Alex Finkel, 17. “Outside it’s a bit scary, but I grew up with the Palestinians. I’ll do everything we always do, and that’s it.”

Before practice, May convened a team meeting. “No one here supports terror,” he recalled telling the swimmers. “No taking sides.”

In the pool, the teenagers kicked into high gear, training vigorously to make up for missed practices. But there was no teasing, joking or chatting between drills. A heaviness hung over them.

Yet the deep bonds formed over years were still there. By the next day, several swimmers said, the atmosphere had lightened. The tensions appeared to have dissipated, or at least been submerged.

Alex Finkel, left, and Mustafa Abdu, right, after completing a swimming drill.

And at the pool last week, it was impossible to distinguish Israeli from Palestinian swimmers. They all wore goggles and swim caps as they completed sets of freestyle and breaststroke. Conversations were cheerful and safe. Alex teased Mustafa about beating him at butterfly.

At one point, when Avishag did not wait long enough before pushing off the wall, she touched Mustafa’s toes with her fingers as she completed a stroke. Mustafa turned, and gave her a look as if to say, “Really?” before resuming. Avishag broke into a playful smile.

Shortly after Israeli forces entered Gaza in late October, Shira learned that her cousin, a soldier, had been killed, just two days shy of turning 21. She missed a couple days of swim practice.

On Shira’s return, Mustafa approached her and said he was sorry for her loss.

“I felt he cared,” she said.

As a recent practice wrapped up, Mustafa emerged from the pool, pulled off his purple cap and headed to the Jacuzzi with the rest of the team.

“This is my second family,” he said. “If we have a problem, we fix it like a team.”

The war in Gaza has tested the teenagers on the Greater Jerusalem swim team who have been teammates for years.

Gal Koplewitz contributed research.

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