A group of Jewish and Arab youths braved checkpoints and fears of violence last Thursday night to race together through Jerusalem’s Train Track Park.
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The evening began with nervous glances, as more than 60 boys and girls stood around in their matching blue T-shirts, struggling to muster enough Arabic, Hebrew or English to communicate.
Yet when the organizers shouted “Start!” in three languages, the only thing that mattered was putting one foot ahead of the next and running for 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) on the dimly lit path that snakes through southwest Jerusalem, along an old railway track.
The event was organized by Runners Without Borders, a group started last year when two separate Jewish-Arab running squads – one for boys, the other for girls – joined forces. The girls’ group was founded by Shoshana Ben-David, 18, just before the Gaza war broke out in the summer of 2014. “I wanted to get high-school girls to be more active, and then the war broke out and there was a lot of violence and racism here,” the Jerusalemite recalled. “So I thought about combining the two.”
The boys’ squad was founded by Israel Haas, 36, a business manager and former editor of the business newspaper Calcalist. “I’m a runner and I speak Arabic, so I saw this as a challenge,” explained Haas.
A few of the boys – including Waleed Aljabri, 15, from the Ras al-Amud neighborhood – represented Israel in a race in Germany last August. Abed, Waleed’s older brother, said some of his friends had a problem with his participation, asking him, “How could you send your brother to Germany for Israel?” Abed, however, sees his brother’s involvement as “a small step in the right direction.”
Despite the promise of the name, borders still posed a challenge to the group. The event was originally scheduled to take place a month ago, but was delayed when a partial blockade was imposed between East and West Jerusalem, following the recent violence in the city. On Thursday, too, an attempted stabbing at a checkpoint in the West Bank threatened to prevent some Arab participants from arriving.
“We were held up for half an hour, but we made it,” said Ibrahim Nasrallah, a Greek-Orthodox Christian from Beit Jala, south of Jerusalem. The 36-year-old didn’t tell his family where he was going, but his friends were concerned. “They said ‘You’re crazy, maybe someone will say you tried to stab someone and shoot you.’ But I told them it’s just a [race], and it’s good for coexistence.” Nasrallah brought along Mahmoud, a 15-year-old runner from Hebron, whose friends also advised against going. “But I’m not afraid of anything,” Mahmoud boasted.
Yaron Grofman, 50, a lawyer who came to the race from Tel Aviv, was optimistic about the effects of sport on promoting peace. “You run, you chat, you clap for each other – it’s got to help,” he said.
Yet that doesn’t mean the runners aren’t competitive. As the medals were handed out for the fastest runners – a young Israeli girl beat the whole pack – Ismail Atrash, a 20-year-old from East Jerusalem’s Shoafat refugee camp, grumbled that “the Arabs always come in last.”
Though running is sometimes a solitary, even meditative affair – jogging at one’s own pace with headphones on – Grofman said he avoided the music last night, so as not “to be closed off in my own world.” Indeed, hardly any of the runners wore headphones. While Grofman gave up his favorite Led Zeppelin tracks for the night, Abed Aljabri passed on his usual running tunes of renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
At the finish line, the sweaty runners were greeted with cheers as they tried to catch their breath. Perhaps no one was more excited than Ben-David’s grandmother, Cynthia Reich, who immigrated to Israel with her husband just six months ago, from New York. “I’ve never been so proud in my life,” she said, as she hollered in English for each runner crossing the finish line. “This gives me optimism that we can coexist. I’m 80 years old, so it won’t be in my generation – but it will be with these teenagers.”
Yet even as the tension melted with the drops of sweat, the language barrier remained. “Good job!” an Israeli girl bellowed in Hebrew, before adding, “Wait – how do you say ‘good job’ in Arabic again?”
But that didn’t trouble 18-year-old Nir Zabari, of Jerusalem, who is getting ready to enlist in the army. “Communication is not only words,” he said.