JERUSALEM – On Thursday, when the starting whistle sounds for the annual Jerusalem Night Run, one group of athletes will not be pounding the Old City’s pavement. They are members of a mixed Jewish-Arab running club who have opted out of the event because it will take place on the first night of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Part of a new nonprofit group called Runners Without Borders, the abstaining runners – all Jerusalem teens – asked organizers to change the date so Muslims, who observe Ramadan by fasting during daylight hours and gathering for a large meal after sundown, could participate. The city denied their request, saying the race had been planned long before the first day of Ramadan was set.
Instead, the group – whose members say it is as much about fitness as it is about uniting the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian residents of this divisive city – decided to hold its own race. Last Thursday, some 100 runners participated in a 5-kilometer run at the Train Track Park, a length of disused Ottoman-era rail line that crosses the seam between Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem's east and Jewish neighborhoods in the west.
It’s been a tough year for Jewish-Arab relations in Jerusalem. Last summer, tensions flared after three Israeli youths were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas operatives near Hebron, and a Palestinian teenager from Jerusalem was kidnapped and killed by Jewish extremists in retaliation. A 50-day war in Gaza followed, and then came weeks of violent protests and a spate of terror attacks.
It was this unrest that Shoshana Ben-David, an 18-year-old Jewish high school student, said spurred her to start a mixed running group for teenage girls as part of a school project. In Israel, Arabs – who are Muslim or Christian – and Jews learn in separate school systems and have little opportunity to meet each other.
“Some people told me not to do it now, that it was not the right time. But I said that when things get tense, it is exactly the right time to do something like this and show everyone that there are youths who have nothing to do with the political situation and can live together,” said Ben-David, an avid runner.
Ben-David, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, said the increase in violence and racism brought on by last summer’s events left her scared to run or even walk alone in certain parts of the city.
Joining forces with Israel Haas, a keen amateur runner who had been looking into creating a similar group for teenage boys (the boys' group launched in March), the two focused on recruiting Arab and Jewish young women. They also raised $20,000 with an online crowd-funding campaign to pay a coach who could facilitate both fitness and dialogue.
“Most of the time we do not discuss the political situation,” said Dala Hreish, 17, one of the Arab runners. “I wanted to try something different and I liked the idea of running and talking.”
But it hasn’t all been smooth running.
When Ben-David initially approached some of the Arab schools, she was told that such a program might not work for conservative Muslim girls, whose parents might be reluctant to let them engage in sports or run in public. Another challenge, she said, came from the Jewish side: Someone called her a “traitor” on Facebook.
“At first I did not think it was a good idea for me to join the group, partly because of my busy schedule but also because there was a lot of conflict in the city,” said Rozana Jaber, a 17-year-old Muslim from East Jerusalem. “But then I thought, why not? I have nothing to lose by being part of this.”
Jaber said the program allowed her to meet new people, especially Jewish girls her own age.
“You get the running part, which is good for a healthy body, and you build relationships too,” she said.
Tzipora Feffer, 18, a Jewish runner, said she joined the group because she'd never had a chance to meet young Arabs before.
“I learned a lot from this group, I learned about their community, their religion and I learned that we all have a lot in common,” she said.