A version of this article originally appeared in Plus61J, an Australian-Jewish publication.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process may be going nowhere, but in Jerusalem, a grassroots initiative connecting Jews and Arabs through physical activity is giving residents hope for a better future in a divided city.
Some 1,000 teenagers and adults gathered on November 9 at Abu Tor, one of Jerusalem’s only mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods, for an annual coexistence race organized by Runners Without Borders, a local nonprofit. Participants stood in a large circle stretching their muscles ahead of the five-kilometer race through a hilly forest trail, as Arab music blasted on loudspeakers and the smell of cardamom-scented coffee filled the air.
“The idea of bringing Jews and Arabs to run together started by accident,” said Israel Hass, who founded Runners Without Borders three years ago. The Jerusalem municipality had held a night race on the first day of Ramadan in June 2015, thereby excluding Muslim runners. The alternative race organized by Hass and his friends that year included just 87 runners but has grown exponentially every year since.
Through the organization, teams of teenage and adult runners train weekly at the Hebrew University stadium in West Jerusalem. Over the past three years, they have taken part in international races in Milan, Berlin and London.
Haas said that while he appreciates cooperation with established coexistence groups in the city, his main target audience is teenagers from marginalized and impoverished areas of Jerusalem who would never meet otherwise. Runners Without Borders recruits Arab teenagers through an active Facebook page and cooperation with local schools which encourage their students to take part in the activities.
“These students — both Jews and Arabs — are exposed to many more stigmas about ‘the other’ than students living in mixed surroundings,” Haas said. “We have no interest in strengthening those who are already strong.”
Aharon Gefen, a community organizer who has been coming to races since their beginning, said he enjoyed the combination of sports and coexistence. “There are no races in East Jerusalem, so this is really the only opportunity for Arabs to take part in something like this,” he said.
Hisham, a 15-year-old student from the Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Baher, said this was the first race he participated in. “It’s a fantastic idea,” he said. “It develops sportsmanship among the youth. I hadn’t trained much, but when I heard there was a marathon I started running. There should be more initiatives like this.”
Mahmoud Hamouda, a 26-year-old graduate student in educational consulting, came to the race as part of a group of blind runners called Eye Contact which trains together in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park. Hamouda and his five colleagues, both Arabs and Jews, run together with a seeing volunteer who helps them navigate the track.
“I ran the ten-kilometer race,” he said proudly, boasting the medal around his shoulders. “It was difficult, but we had a good time. I’ve already run two marathons. I wish every city in Israel had a Jewish-Arab race like this.”
Some participants, especially older runners on the Jewish side, came with a clear political agenda in mind. “This is the true peace process,” said Assaf Stolarz, an insurance agent from Moshav Kfar Daniel. “When you meet someone and interact with him, you can’t remain his enemy. You may disagree with him, but you can’t harm him. That’s real peace.”
Liliana Fridman, his running companion and an employee at the new American embassy in Jerusalem, said she’d heard of similar races in Bethlehem and Gaza, and was sorry she couldn’t attend them as an Israeli.
“The result we achieve in the race makes no difference,” Stolarz added. “It’s the meeting that matters. I hope next time we run in central Jerusalem rather than in a remote neighborhood so that the whole world can see.”
Uri Wernik, a Jerusalem psychologist, said it was his second year attending the five-kilometer race. “Jews and Arabs are so disconnected, this is the minimum I can do,” he said. “It’s so beautiful seeing Jews and Arabs do something together. I like running alone and usually shun group activities, but this is the exception.”
Asked whether such activities bore any significance given the stagnant political process, Wernik said he was pessimistic. “There are so many ideas for cooperation, but they just don’t happen. People have no brains. They prefer to fight rather than look for win-win situations where both sides can have it good.”
But Aharon Gefen, the community organizer, said the fact that Jerusalem is currently off the negotiating table may leave more space for simple coexistence.
“There’s the large issue of the peace process and then there’s shared life. The two don’t necessarily progress at the same pace,” he opined. “The less talk there is of dividing Jerusalem, the more people focus on living together and getting to know each other. Neither side is going anywhere.”