Racing for two states

Ahmed, Dara and Yovav are on a grassroots peace ‘trip.’

The finishing team (photo credit: COURTESY DARA FRANK)
The finishing team
(photo credit: COURTESY DARA FRANK)
There was something unusual about the pickup soccer game formed by a visiting Taglit-Birthright group in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park last month. Among the American, Ashkenazi-looking Jews, the goalie – a burly man standing at over 1.8 meters tall – contrasted with the group, with his olive skin and hooked nose.
His name is Ahmed Helou, and he’s from Jericho.
The Taglit kids didn’t ask who the new player was, he said; he usually plays goalie and was dressed in sporting gear, having just come from a run. That afternoon he was practicing for the Tel Aviv half-marathon with Dara Frank, a 24-year-old immigrant from New York – who also joined the pick-up game.
Off to the side nursing a cold, but standing out with his full beard and spectacles was Yovav Kalifon, a kibbutznik and the third founding member of Tiyul-Rihla (“trip” in Hebrew and Arabic), an organization for Israelis and Palestinians that focuses on differences in narratives from the standpoint of ancient history, to lead to a more productive conversation about the conflict.
Helou has been the Palestinian co-director for about a year and says it’s not normal for his people to participate in such a project, but that he enjoys the challenge.
Finding members on the Palestinian side can be a problem, as many see the organization’s activities as “normalizing” the conflict, but Helou maintains that a grassroots push for peace is attracting people.
“It’s not normal for the Palestinian people,” he says. “But I like to make life a challenge, and I’m not scared.”
LAST FRIDAY, Helou, Frank and Kalifon completed the Tel Aviv half-marathon, an impromptu side project that found no less than 14 past participants running with them, resulting in around $3,000 raised for their organization.
“Our goal was to raise $1,000 to supplement our next trip,” Franks said, and explained that trips are planned according to how much money can be raised.
“Ultimately, we try to do as many trips as possible, and the marathon ended up being a quasi-follow-up project, where the runners got to chat and talk about things on the trip, more trips, more follow-up projects.”
Tiyul-Rihla operates under the auspices of an NGO, the Center for Emerging Futures, and raises money from individual donations and crowdfunding, taking participants to historical sites in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem and more. The itinerary focuses on the history of the land from before the Common Era.
“The most basic things [that] people take for granted,” Kalifon says. “We don’t set a goal to build coexistence, we try to show Israelis and Palestinians who they are, who the other one is.
But by showing the history, we can show both sides, that they don’t know who they are dealing with.”
Since the fall of 2011 there have been seven large trips, which include an overnight stay, and smaller oneday or hiking trips. The cost for a full trip runs between $3,000 and $4,000.
“We don’t plan the dates of the trip a year in advance because we raise money per trip,” Frank said.
With the supplement of fund-raising from the half-marathon, the group is beginning to plan an April trip that will go to sites on the Palestinian side.
The idea of participating in the race and making it a fund-raising campaign for the organization was unplanned.
“Dara talked us into it,” Kalifon said after the race, relieved of his cold, in his opinion, because he ran.
“She was going to do it anyway and she managed to get us excited about it as staff, to build our teamwork and work together.”
As the three trained, Kalifon would post photos on Facebook from around Jerusalem to stimulate conversation and raise awareness for Tiyul-Rihla.
“I can see so many [sites] that are layered,” he said. “Some are really ancient, some are less ancient, some are modern – but they are all somehow related to the conflict.”
ONE PICTURE Kalifon posted was of a door to a synagogue depicting the 12 tribes of Israel.
“It might seem weird to think about tribes in the 21st century, but it’s not weird if you are coming from the Middle East,” Kalifon wrote on Facebook. “Ancient tribal history, I feel, has left a mark on the modern societies you find in the little area we call Israel/Palestine. That tribal history relates back to our identity, to the way we see ourselves and our place in society.”
Another photo Kalifon posted was a viewpoint overlooking the entrance to Jerusalem. The area he points out was once an Arab village called Lifta, one of the oldest populated villages with a history of Jewish and Arab fighting from the early 20th century. “The groups we take on our trips are always mixed, half of them Israeli and half are Palestinian,” Kalifon wrote. “This way, it’s impossible for the [tour] guide to tell half-truths, or promote an agenda, since half the group would pick up on it and protest.”
These are the goals of Tiyul-Rihla and because it focuses on education, it attracts a wide range of participants. “You get a good sample of Israeli society and a good sample of Palestinian society,” Kalifon says. “Because we’re just giving intellectual content, everyone sits in.
Right-wing, left-wing, religious, secular, old, young, professionals, students; everyone has something to learn and something to contribute to a trip like ours.”
BASED ON this spectrum of alumni participants, the running group included three Palestinians, three olim, and four Israelis.
Getting the Palestinians, one of whom was Ahmed, to the race was no easy feat.
Permits had to be arranged at least a week before the race so they could sign up before registration closed. With an oral indication from the IDF that the permits would be issued, not a usual policy, the Palestinians registered for the race.
When the permits were finally issued, a breakdown in communication almost sidelined the Palestinian runners, as confusion mounted in regard to where the permits would be printed, where they should be picked up, and “we couldn’t get it together to get the piece of paper and the Palestinian runner to the same place,” Kalifon says, adding he believes that everyone’s motivation was in the right place, including the officer trying to deliver the permits.
The participation of the Palestinian runners proved to be an even bigger step in their showing recognition of their participation with Tiyul-Rihla. For the first time, photos went up on Facebook and the Palestinians weren’t hiding their names from their friends and community. “Some friends attacked me [on Facebook] and said I am [normalizing the conflict],” Helou says.
“My answer to him is ‘OK, we agree on two states, we agree on [an] Israeli state, so what is wrong with participating in Tel Aviv? I didn’t agree to participate in a marathon in Jerusalem, but in Tel Aviv; it’s an Israeli city and all of us agree on that, and for all of us it’s no problem to participate.”
One of the goals of the next trip will be to get more women from the Palestinian side involved. Getting Palestinian participants in general is always a task when it comes to securing permits; add to that societal stigmas towards women and it can exacerbate this issue. There are around three or four women for every 10 or so Palestinian men. Frank says they may try working with other NGOs for an all-female trip, but that is still in process.
Yet Helou maintains that there are open-minded Palestinian women, and he is determined to get them on the trip.
“I started to study Hebrew [in Jericho] and there are three girls in my class. I talked to two of them about the trip and they agreed to come.”