Tolerance: A home run

Jewish and Arab boys represent Jerusalem in an international running event, despite earlier violence engulfing the city.

Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Children on the first day of school in Jerusalem, 2014.
Seventeen-year-old Samaha Marouf from the capital’s Beit Hanina neighborhood was very proud to represent his home city in a competition in Berlin earlier this week. Together with another seven boys, he was part of the first-ever Jewish-Arab team to participate at such an event.
Marouf is a participant in Running Without Borders, a nonprofit that brings together young Jerusalemites from different city sectors through sport. The group was founded by entrepreneur Israel Haas and high-school student Shoshana Ben-David, both keen runners, in response to violent outbursts here following last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
Last time In Jerusalem caught up with the two, they were just setting up the organization’s girls’ running team, and a boys’ group was still in the pipeline. A few months later an eight-member boys’ team had already taken part in an international race, despite rising Jewish-Arab violence in late July and early August.
But the clashes in the capital were not about to stop the teams. “It’s not a political group, it’s just about being together and getting to know people and societies,” says Marouf. He enjoys the conversations that come up during training sessions, which are usually carried out in English, and which start off by talking about running technicalities but then evolve to more personal topics.
Haas is pleased with the direction the boys are taking. “The cooperation strengthens, side by side with the level of exposure that this activity gets, and as more and more people join and want to take part,” he explains. “We try to make sure that the boys in the group maintain a dialogue and discussions, even though it’s not trivial or simple, as some of the Arab boys don’t speak either English or Hebrew and, conversely some of the Jews don’t speak English or Arabic.”
“Our goal is that in the end, the relationships formed by the Jews and Arabs in the group will go beyond the limits of the program training sessions and develop into independent relationships,” he says. “Our ultimate aim is that Jewish boys will meet with Arab boys out of their own initiative, without a mediator.”
Having previously encountered problems trying to get Arab boys to join the program, it is now gaining more popularity thanks to the participants themselves.
“The Arab and Jewish boys are serving as ‘ambassadors’ in their communities,” Haas notes. Marouf believes that his participation has encouraged others to join, relating that five other boys he knows now want to join the team.
Is he deterred by recent the violence? “From my point of view, it doesn’t matter if it’s Jewish or Arab violence. One time it’s this, another time it’s the other. It’s something I strongly object to,” says Marouf.
Team member Mohammed Jaber, 15, agrees. Instead of fighting, he argues, more should be done to negotiate between the sides. Also from Beit Hanina, he joined the group at the beginning of summer after a Running Without Borders representative came to speak at his school.
“You come and meet new people – Arabs and Jews – and you talk,” he says of the group. “What surprised me the most was how willing people were to talk to each other.”
The group is certainly gaining traction.
With its strong social media presence, it is gathering fans and supporters, and even managed to raise the NIS 59,000 needed to send the team to the Berlin race on August 23 with the help of 366 donors on the Headstart crowdfunding site.
But it could do with more support, especially from the Jerusalem Municipality, according to Haas. “It is easy for us to get people to join as individuals, but as long as the establishment doesn’t have the motivation or the guiding hand that decides to promote real coexistence activities, then things will move slowly.”
The race in the German capital was definitely an organizational high point.
Each participant ran individually, and the boys are pleased with their results.
“I’m very excited and proud of my result – 10.5 km. in 47 minutes – it’s my best result, even though the race was difficult because of the rain and the roads,” enthuses Marouf. The rain was a surprising factor for the boys to take into consideration, seeing that they’ve been practicing in the sweltering Israeli heat of the past month.
Haas reveals that the team garnered some attention. “We actually came across responses particularly when I cheered on the runners in Arabic during the race,” he details. “The Germans were very excited about it, and came over to ask what it’s about.”
As for future plans, the nonprofit mainly hopes to expand. “In the next year, I would like to see the organization operate two large groups of boys and girls in Jerusalem, two established men and women’s groups, delegations that will go abroad once a year and shared races for Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem,” says Haas. Running Without Borders is also planning to duplicate the model it created in the capital to Haifa, and work on the matter has already begun.
All these groups “will show that things can be different in Jerusalem,” Haas hopes. “This city also has different sides.”