Two-race Solution: In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, American Runs for Peace

Aaron Voldman is using his running shoes to make a point about not dropping out of the grueling race for peace.

Emil Salman

Lots of people run marathons. But few runners take on two marathons in the space of three weeks. Even fewer people run two marathons in two neighboring nations locked in conflict, and whose prospects of making peace seem to have hit rock bottom.

Indeed, there are few people like Aaron Voldman, who will run in the Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem on Friday, exactly three weeks after he ran the Jerusalem Winner Marathon.

Voldman, 26, is in Jerusalem for the year, studying and volunteering as part of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel. Born and raised in Burlington, Vermont, he studied at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he became a more observant Jew. He also grew interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following a 2007 trip with Birthright, a program aimed at increasing ties of young Diaspora Jews to Israel. Back on campus, as an undergraduate he co-founded the Student Peace Alliance, which focuses on both American and global issues.

Although he cared about many issues around the world, one of the trouble spots that moved him most was this one.

“I felt concerned about the human rights situation in the West Bank for several years, and while I was at Brandeis, it was a frequent topic of discussion,” Voldman says over a fruit shake and quinoa salad in a Jerusalem café after a run in the days before the marathon. “When I came here last year, I had conversations with many people on both sides of conflict. With the construction of security barrier I saw that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to interact. And when I learned that there was a Palestine marathon, I decided it was worth stretching myself to raise awareness on peacebuidling work, but also to encounter Palestinian people in particular.”

In fact, the group that’s had perhaps the most profound window on his view of the conflict is called Encounter, an organization that takes both international visitors and Israelis to meet Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly those affiliated with the nonviolence movement. Although people of varied backgrounds go on Encounter trips, its target audience since its founding in 2005 has been Jewish groups, the bulk of them Americans studying in religious programs in Israel for a year.

As part of running the two marathons, Voldman is trying to raise funds for Encounter as well as the Holy Land Trust , Encounter’s Palestinian partner, and set up a small crowdfunding campaign to support the effort.

“Peacebuilding is like running a marathon, it’s like running many marathons,” Voldman says in the video. “It involves courage, the willingness to encounter pain and discomfort, it demands faith to continue to move forward no matter how far away the finish line seems.”

The Palestine Marathon, now in its second year, is a kind of alternative to the Jerusalem marathon started by Jerusalem Nir Barkat just four years ago. The Palestine Marathon, whose main partners are the Palestinian High Council of Youth and Sports and a group called Right to Movement − the Bethlehem governate and the Palestinian Olympic Committee are among 10 other partners − was set up to make a point as much as it was to celebrate the sport of running.

Its numbers won’t compete with the Jerusalem Marathon – there were 26,000 runners in the Jerusalem race this year, while the inaugural Palestine Marathon last year had only 687, with hopes of more than 2,000 this time around. But it’s a race for a reason, aimed in part at exposing the limitations on Palestinians living in the West Bank: It’s almost impossible to find a 26-mile (42 km) route of contiguous Palestinian road to run on.

“Restriction on movement is one of the major challenges for the Palestinian people living under occupation,” the marathon’s organizers note on their website . “Palestinians cannot move freely on roads, or from one city to another. The Palestinians’ right to move is controlled by their ID permits, which city they live in, or who they are married to. The environment that Palestinians were supposed to move freely in is occupied and thus controlled by a foreign army.”

The route of the race begins at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, goes past the huge concrete wall that looms over parts of Bethlehem, and then goes into the Aida refugee camp, the Dheisheh refugee camp, and into the village of al-Khader before winding back up to the church again. The start and finish lines being in the same place is unusual for an international marathon, but helps the organizers make the point about the limits of a run in the West Bank, where Palestinians have full control only over locales referred to as in Area A, as opposed to Areas B and C − a legacy of the Oslo Accords.

So what does Mom back home think of her nice Jewish boy running in the West Bank?

After a touch of hesitation, he smiles. “She supports it,” he says. After all, she’s also a marathon runner. Voldman ran his first marathon with her in Vermont five or six years ago.

“She actually beat me,” he says with a laugh − he’d gotten a calf spasm and waved his athletic mother on.

“I’ve sometimes felt nervous about my safety visiting Palestinian sections of the West Bank, but in general, I’ve been really moved by Palestinian hospitality and the warmth I’ve been shown,” he explains. “And while I felt nervous about running in this race as well, I reminded myself of how warmly I’ve been treated in the past, so I thought it was important to show up to be part of something I believe in.”

Making the marathon that much more poignant, it falls close to the anniversary of the bombing of the Boston Marathon, which happened last year on April 15. Voldman was near the finish line − not to run, but to cheer on a cousin in the race − when the bombs went off. He was unharmed, but deeply rattled.

“Once you’ve been through a terrorist attack you have a stronger sense of what’s on the line in terms of taking risks. After that, I had a stronger sense than ever before of why there’s so much reluctance among Israelis to engage with Palestinians and also for the government to take risks for peace,” he says. “But it’s essential for Israelis and Palestinians to address each other’s concerns: For Israelis to stand for Palestinian civil rights, and for Palestinians to stand for Israeli security. Running these two marathons … is an effort to stand with both Israelis and Palestinians, and to stand for both peoples’ wellbeing.”