Ramsey Nijem, a rising star in the world of mixed martial arts, hopes to use his newfound celebrity to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, reports The Jewish Daily Forward.
Last year the Palestinian-American draped himself in a Palestinian flag and and blasted the song “One Day” by the Jewish rapper Matisyahu as he entered a Las Vegas arena for a fight. The bout was part of “The Ultimate Fighter” series, a reality show.
To some, a song about peace seemed to be an unusual choice for a man preparing to fight inside a cage in Sin City. And then there was the eyebrow-raising fact that a Palestinian American chose a song about peace by a Jewish artist.
Nijem insists that his choice of attire and music was not meant to send a specific message about the Middle East. Instead, he said, he just casually chose two things that he likes and that have meaning for him.
“I didn’t really preplan it as much as a lot of people thought,” said 24-year-old Nijem, who grew up in Washington state. He said he liked the song’s beat, and the message that “we are all people at the end of the day,” though he never intended to get political.
The 24-year-old son of a Palestinian father and Spanish-American mother has realized that his rising profile may afford him a chance to change perceptions about Israel and Palestine, The Forward reported.
“There’s a lot of smarter people out there that I think could solve it other than me,” he said, referring to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. “But the most important thing is to be open to dialogue, and to not allow the people who aren’t open to dialogue to set the tone.”
Nijem is an up-and-coming star in the world of competitive mixed martial arts, a combat sport that is promoted by the UFC and combines disciplines like kickboxing and karate with wrestling and judo. The UFC’s bouts, or matches, are staged in a trademark octagon-shaped cage and draw huge audiences of millions on cable and pay-per-view TV.
Born in Concord, California, Nijem told The Forward that his parents talked to him about the Palestinian struggle but did not pass on any resentment of Israelis or Jews. His close friendship with a Jewish boy at his school, David Ney, was taken as a matter of course.
“It’s never really fazed us,” Nijem said. “Obviously, my dad really embedded in our heads the importance of the Palestinian people being free…. He’s always said that something needs to change, but you can’t take it out on Jewish people, or people of Jewish descent.”
Nijem and Ney had their moments of tensions and heated debates after they separately visited Israel and Palestinian territories. But these arguments never dented their friendship.
Today, Nijem continues to take on some of the toughest competitors in the UFC, all the while trying to do his part to promote peace — even if it involves fighting in a cage.
“I believe that the majority of people want peace, and it’s the minority that is extremists,” he said. “People don’t want to live in fear that they’re going to get killed that day, or their family.”