Jerusalem marathon 2017: Bridges built in a divided city

Competitors take part in Jerusalem's 7th marathon, on March 17, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX        (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
Divided city, but united runners in Jerusalem
01:19 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Race brings Jews, Arabs together

An estimated 30,000 people took part

Running group battles division in society

Jerusalem CNN  — 

The Jerusalem Marathon winds its way through one of the most historic – and contentious – cities on earth.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all have holy sites within its hallowed walls. Enmity between Israelis and Palestinians is too often the norm, not the exception.

Sometimes the tension is palpable.

One group of runners aims to shift that paradigm, using a simple sport to build bridges between people.

“One of the major problems of Jerusalem is the lack of knowledge between both of the sides,” says Israel Haas, who competed in the 10 km portion of the Jerusalem Marathon, “and lack of knowledge will escalate into fear and bad opinions about each other.”

Haas started Runners Without Borders in November 2014 with his co-founder, Shoshana Ben-David. It was an unlikely time to form a group dedicated to coexistence and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. The war in Gaza had ended not six months earlier, and the distrust between the sides had not yet faded.

Still, Haas and Ben-David pressed on.

“In contrast to many other sports, it’s not one team against another team. You’re doing it together. You’re running on one track with the same people and you’re running in the same direction,” Haas says.

Running together

Their group began growing, bringing in runners from all of the different communities within Jerusalem: men and women; religious and secular; Israeli and Palestinian.

They train every week, breaking down barriers as they clock more miles running on the streets of the city. And when it comes to race day, they run together, urging each other along.

The Jerusalem Marathon is run over a challenging course, with several steep hills. Now in its seventh year, some 30,000 people took part last Friday in a series of races, from a mile-long family fun run, to the full-length marathon.

“We don’t run for politics but for humanity. There is no difference between a Jew and an Arab,” says Samaha Marouf, a teenage runner from East Jerusalem.

Marouf is sitting next to Itzik Karasiky at the end of an evening training session, one of the last before the race. They help each other out with language – the Israeli and the Palestinian – clearly comfortable in each other’s company and, perhaps more importantly, simply enjoying this time among friends.

“We are under (Israeli) occupation and that’s our issue,” Marouf says. “Our issue is not with Jews. So we can run together, we can be friends, we can be brothers, and instead of having a war, we can look for other sides.”

If there is any year these two friends should not be running together, sitting next to each other, and laughing as one, it is 2017.

It is 100 years since the British Balfour Declaration, which promised a homeland to the Jewish people. It is generally hailed by Israelis and detested by Palestinians.

It also marks 50 years since the Six Day War. Depending on your perspective, it is either a half-century since the unification of Jerusalem or five decades since the start of the occupation of Palestinian lands.

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Facing obstacles, moving forward

Yet politics is almost never a topic of conversation here. It distracts from the more important goal.

“Every one of us has our own opinions about Jews and Palestinians,” Karasiky says.

“But from the other side, everyone who is a member of this group understands how much living together is important to us, and how much we need to rise above our simple opinions that maybe we learned in our youth.

“And especially now when there is so much hatred around us, it’s even more important to show that there is also another way – that there are Arab and Jewish youth who want a different way.”

Runners Without Borders has its doubters; Marouf and Karasiky have received their share of questions, but they brush off the negativity.

When asked about how they respond to the skeptics, both give virtually the same answer, even though Marouf responds in Arabic and Karasiky answers in Hebrew; neither properly understanding what the other is saying.

“Some people ask us, ‘How come you run with our occupier?’ We answer that they are human beings just like us,” Marouf says. “There is a difference between the people we run with, and the occupation.”

Karasiky adds: “I always say come to one training session – just one session! Take a look at the people I run with. Look at the people I am friends with, that I have been spending three years with, and then let’s see if you can say these things!”

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The runners who participate in this organization are clear, there is only one direction for Israelis and Palestinians: forward.