Running history

While the appeal of marathons is for their physical challenge and diverse locations, two long-distance courses in the West Bank have an extra element: politics.

Participants run in Israeli Bible Marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Participants run in Israeli Bible Marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Rosh Ha’ayin, 5:30 a.m. Groups of runners are warming up and stretching, anxiously awaiting the starting horn for the first annual Bible Marathon.
Of the runners beginning in Rosh Ha’ayin, 60 are running the 21 km. to Ariel, and 110 are preparing to run 42 km. to Tel Shiloh. Another group of a few hundred runners will start their 15K and 5K races in Ariel and end in Shiloh.
Barely visible in the dark is the multitude of white running shirts with the words “running history” printed over colorful images of mosaic floors. The starting horn sounds, and the runners are off, uphill on Highway 5.
It is not immediately clear from the dark highway that one is “running history.” There is no loud music, nor are there fans lining the route; every now and then, a truck driver approaching from the opposite direction on the highway honks his horn enthusiastically and encouragingly. Even when the sun begins to rise and it is possible to make out the shadows of the surrounding olive groves, it appears, for this section of the race, that the only fans are the volunteers handing out water every few kilometers and the groups of soldiers stationed alongside.
There are four annual marathons in Israel – in Tiberias, Eilat, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. According to Ofer Padan, general manager of Marathon Israel – the company responsible for organizing and marketing the event – “it seems like there would be no room for another marathon.”
Why the Bible Marathon, then? “Because of the story of the race,” says Padan.
When Binyamin Regional Council tourism director Moshe Ronski first heard the story of the “man of Benjamin’s marathon to Shiloh,” he began investigating further. The story, as it appears in I Samuel 4:12, describes “one of the first runs ever recorded in history – well before the first ‘marathon’ in Greek history,” he explains.
“There was a war between the Israelites and the Philistines, and the ‘man of Benjamin’ – who later turns out to be King Saul – runs from the battlefield at Eben Ezer [which we know to be Rosh Ha’ayin today] to Shiloh.
The mission was to inform Eli the High Priest of Israel’s defeat in this war, the fall of his sons, and the capture of the Ark of the Covenant.”
The Binyamin Regional Council provides opportunities for people to rediscover history, Ronski says: “We want visitors to connect to the history and to the stories in the Bible.”
In doing so, the council’s overall purpose is to create modern events that bring history and the Bible to life.
“There are many races in Israel; we hope to provide some context to the running,” he says.
Adds Padan, “Many people come to me each year with an idea for a marathon, but when the Binyamin Regional Council came to me with this story, I knew we had to make a race. Finally a marathon with historical content! I knew that this wouldn’t just be a race, it would be a marathon with international possibilities.”
With only three months of planning, 1,300 runners is quite an accomplishment for the first annual Bible Marathon. Many of the runners attended the expo and award ceremony event at Tel Shiloh at the end of the race as well.
In upcoming years, the race organizers are looking to attract more runners. Ronski wants “not only Israelis, but foreigners as well; not only Jews, but anyone who loves the Bible and wants to feel a connection to history.”
Padan believes this race has the power to connect different populations though the telling of history. “It should serve as a coexistence event focusing on history.
It is not political; we want secular and religious Jews, even Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. We want everyone who runs to run in this event.”
AT THE 19-km. mark, the course turns off the main highway and continues onto a small, barely maintained road. Looking to the right, one can see a heavy backup of traffic – mostly cars with green-andwhite Palestinian license plates, small yellow Palestinian buses, and many frustrated drivers honking and yelling. Based on this junction, the race seems more likely to be antagonizing local communities, rather than inviting them to participate in a coexistence event. It also seems to be an ironic response to the Palestine Marathon, which took place three weeks earlier.
I mention this observation to a man with whom I’ve been running for a few kilometers; this is his fifth marathon in Israel this year. He says he didn’t make the same connection, nor did he know there was an event called the Palestine Marathon. Rather, he simply wanted to run every official marathon in Israel.
At the starting line, I overheard one runner say he was running as a warm-up for a 144-km. ultra-marathon the following week. At the finish line for the half-marathon in Ariel, a woman tells me she has run six half-marathons this year and wants to run another.
The majority of race participants, it appears, are not trying to make an overtly political statement. While some runners are residents of the Binyamin area, the majority are secular runners “who had never had the opportunity to run in this region,” observes Padan.
However, the Palestinian Authority does see this race as political; in fact, it has condemned the marathon, organized “by settlers,” as “aggression against the Palestinian territories and the continuation of Israeli arrogance.” The PA has even called on international institutions and human rights groups to “focus on the terror of settlers, which is this time disguised in sports clothing.”
When I ask Padan for his thoughts about the Palestine Marathon, he implies that while he has heard about the marathon, there is no connection between it and this event. He insists that the Bible Marathon is not political. And throughout my long interview with Ronski, politics doesn’t come up once.
EVEN IF the marathon is not overtly political, could there be an element of “normalizing” the current political reality of the settlement movement? If that is the case, is history being used as a tool of normalization? In my own work, which involves meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, at one dialogue group, a Palestinian participant stood up and proclaimed: “We’re not talking about the same things; the Israelis are talking about history and we’re talking about human rights.” If we were to compare the two marathons, it would almost appear this were the case; while the Bible Marathon quotes scripture, the Palestine Marathon quotes the UN Charter of Human Rights.
The motto of the Palestine Marathon is “Movement – A human right,” and on the official website the marathon organizers articulate, “The right to movement is a basic human right, as stipulated in Article 13 of the UN Human Rights Charter: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement.’... Restriction on movement is one of the major challenges for the Palestinian people living under occupation. Palestinians cannot move freely on roads or from one city to another.”
There is an element of rhetorical competition by means of popular sports and tourism. The Bible Marathon claims to be retracing the route of the “first marathon in history,” and that this first marathon was run in the Land of Israel by King Saul almost 3,000 years ago, With this, organizers of the modern-day event claim there is a clear linear connection between the Jewish King Saul, the ancient shrine at Shiloh, and the modern Jewish-Israeli community, which returned to this land after 2,000 years of exile.
By promoting the rhetoric of the Jewish people’s undeniable historical connection to the land, the Bible Marathon refuses to comment on the reality of the current political situation with the Palestinians.
When its runners see roads blocked off, it is just like road closures in any other large road race, and there appears to be nothing specifically significant about closing Palestinian roads. When the race participants run easily through checkpoints, do they notice them? When Padan tells me that he wants Palestinians to participate in the race, does he acknowledge the barriers that would prevent them from physically getting there, as well as the social stigma that will dissuade them from wanting to run? But in Bethlehem, the Palestine Marathon also chooses the narrative it wishes to promote. Through repetitive references to human rights abuses and focusing on the security barrier as a separation fence, it ignores the area’s complex political situation.
When international participants run through the Aida refugee camp, they are shown images without a contextual historical understanding. If they do not read Arabic, they do not understand that the elaborate painted murals decorating the outside of the refugee camp glorify the “martyrs” – or suicide bombers – of the intifadas. Nor do the runners receive an explanation as to why the security barrier was built, only that it impedes the ability of the marathon organizers to “find the 42.195 km. needed for a marathon.”
Still, sports have always served as a popular medium for coexistence projects. Former president Shimon Peres’s Jaffa-based Center for Peace has young Israelis and Palestinians playing soccer together, while running groups and “peace marathons” are popping up here and in Europe. If used properly, sports and sport tourism can continue to bring people together.
The writer is an MA candidate in International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and founder Co-Director of Tiyul-Rihla.