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Chess4All: Israelis and Arabs build ties through sport

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Using chess, Israel’s Lior Aizenberg is promoting peace and solidarity between his country and Arab states and other countries around the world

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In a unique and brilliant initiative, Israel’s Lior Aizenberg has found a unique and brilliant way to promote peace and solidarity between Israel and Arab countries across the region: Chess.  

Just prior to the announcement of peace between Israel and Sudan, Aizenberg and his chess club Chess4All held a solidarity chess tournament between chess players in the two countries.

“It was organized even before the declaration of normalization of ties between Israel and Sudan, which was still considered a hostile state towards Israel and a supporter of terrorism on the day of the event,” he told IsraelNewsStand, adding that 397 participants took part in Israel and Sudan, including some from South Sudan.

“In the last 24 hours, the event was joined by almost 300 people,” Aizenberg emphasized. “The event was held along with exciting ceremonies over Zoom, professional commentary – it was historical. [We held] a game of peace unaware that 24 hours later ties between the two countries would be established.”

“The reactions from both sides warmed our hearts,” he added.

The solidarity online chess tournament between Israel and Sudan. Credit: Lior Aizenberg

Asked how Chess4All began, Aizenberg said it all started 20 years ago when he realized the “practical desire to make a living through my hobby as a student.”
“I really didn’t think it would develop into a career or a club that hosts cross-border international events,” he said. “Our club ‘Chess4all’ believes chess as a worthy goal in and of itself as a competitive field but also as an educational tool with the ability to bring about change and do good for people.”

Over time, Aizenberg understood that “advocacy for Israel can be done through any field and my two great loves, apart from my family, are chess and Israel.”

He explained that he grew up in a single-parent family and learned that in life there are no boundaries or glass ceilings.

“Any goal can be realized,” he stressed, adding that while promoting peace in the region, he also tries “to find a way to contribute to low-income families… in the form of free or zero-cost chess classes from time to time,” which helps him to perpetuate his mother’s memory.

Speaking about Chess4All, Aizenberg highlighted how “the world is changing before our eyes and we [can] see how our online chess events package connects people even beyond the ties between countries.”

The online chess events are hosted through Zoom and are played through a chess platform, during which there are also opening and closing ceremonies and commentary through Twitch.

“The lack of borders on the Internet, the voices of change from the Arab world and of course the peace agreements creates a unique [and] different reality that we must be active in,” Aizenberg continued. “Chess has the ability to bring change. Since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, there has been a 50% increase in online chess learning and playing activity, which has become a worthy replacement for frontal chess activity.” 

He added that “chess is at a relative advantage these days” because of the pandemic “and is in the process of an amazing change because activity on the net is now huge.”

Aside of the tournament between Israel and Sudan, Aizenberg’s chess club also took part “in a match with 65 players from 10 different countries including Israel, Syria, Algeria and Tunisia took part for the first time with flags and all.”

“There is still more to come, we are not done here,” he added.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Aizenberg and Chess4All when it comes to organizing and participating in matches that span into the Middle East.

At the end of 2017, Aizenberg together with seven Israeli chess players was scheduled to take part in a world chess championship in Saudi Arabia. At the time, he was the spokesperson for the Chess Association.

“Of course we were boycotted [and could not attend] but I decided not to restrain myself and I started working towards fixing the problem,” he said. “While doing so, I learned to use activist tools against boycotts of Israelis even outside of the chess industry.”

He got involved in petitions and media campaigns, which reached the media worldwide, “one of the campaigns was even with ‘StandWithUs.’”

“It created a huge echo that has never been heard before in the world of chess around the issue of the boycott of Israelis,” Aizenberg pointed out.

At that time, Aizenberg said that he had invested many months to rectify the situation following the boycott in Saudi Arabia.
“Together with the Lawfare project and the lawyers they hired from Switzerland, we conducted a legal proceeding to prevent boycotts in the industry,” Aizenberg said. “That same year, I revealed to the media my desire to attend a world championship in Tunisia to which a lovely 7-year-old girl from Israel, Liel Levitan, was also supposed to go,” but would not be able to attend because of the boycott against Israel. 

“It shook me to the core that a 7-year-old girl was being boycotted,” he emphasized.

Chess4All founder Lior Aizenberg with 7-year-old Israeli player Liel Levitan. Credit: Supplied

However, just before both world championships were to happen, internal changes in the global chess industry led to both being transferred to different countries. The championship in Tunisia was moved to Turkey, while the one in Saudi Arabia was moved to Russia – all because of the initial decision to boycott the Israeli players.

This, Aizenberg said, made it clear that by not “giving everyone an equal right to participate, a world championship cannot take place.”

“The fact that chess has risen above the radar means that there is also an impact on players from Arab countries,” Aizenberg pointed out. “There are quite a few Iranians who have stopped representing their country and the online activities that our club conducts with the help of colleagues such as my friend Alon Cohen bring Israelis and chess players from all over the world, and especially from Arab countries, closer.”

“I see how much it does good for the people who are at one hand in a cultural quarantine but in chess are part of special international events,” he added

Over the years, Natan Sharansky has also assisted Aizenberg and Chess4All, along with many advocacy organizations, “which has given [us] immense power on the net and helps to protect us against antisemitism or various injustices.”

Addressing how chess can facilitate peace, Aizenberg highlighted that it “is a cultural, educational thinking sport that encourages people to think and also connects people from a distance and from different backgrounds and ages.”

“There is a deep connection between the Jewish people and the game of chess as is with a lot of champions,” he pointed out. “Together with Zoom, WhatsApp groups, a connection in the field of chess is created between people. I believe that the entire gaming industry can be a great tool for ‘connection’ [especially] during this time, which allows for positive things to come out of the coronavirus pandemic as well.” 

But organizing such events and matches doesn’t come without its challenges. 

“Certainly there are countries where people are afraid to play against us or have hostility towards Israelis or have the idea that politics are part of sports, which has been rooted in them,” Aizenberg said.

Asked how he combats these issues, he explained that “in such situations I first try to convince [potential players] that the desire to play chess is not related to relations between governments and that we hold meetings with chess players and groups from all over the world including those from Arab countries.” 

“To my delight,” he said, “with the help of our supporters and community, we are also expanding in this activity and the Arab world is slowly advancing with the recognition that what was right for the Arab League in 1935, including the decision to boycott every Jew, is not true today.”

Concluding, Aizenberg shared an important message: “Through sport you can build bridges, hope and peace for the future.”

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