Josh Kaplan

The Jerusalem marathon was not just a race, it was a mass-painkiller

The 40,000-strong Jerusalem Marathon was a collective cry of anguish over the plight of the hostages


Thousands of runners take part in the annual Jerusalem marathon on Jaffa street in Jeruslem, on March 8, 2024. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ריצה מרתון ירושלים רחוב יפו

March 08, 2024 10:20

Usually when you see people bobbing up and down, stretching their legs before a race, they’re stretching to avoid pulling something. But at the Jerusalem marathon, they’re also davening.

On a sunny Friday morning, nearly 40,000 Israelis, Jewish and Muslim, took to the streets of the capital for the annual race - this year given additional poignancy by the long shadow of war. Signs lined the route, practically shouting their message, to bring the hostages home. “Pain is temporary, 153 days is unbearable” read one memorable example placed near the finish, where runners were at their most tired. As the race started in the grounds of the Knesset, representatives of hostage families told their stories, demanding that their government work harder to return their loved ones after more than 150 days in Hamas captivity.

Like everything in Israel in the last few months, all efforts at the race were focused towards the hostages. Hundreds of runners wore the faces of those in Gaza, the first hostage posters that I’d seen not torn down in months. It seemed like there was not a person running who didn’t have some connection to the traumas of the last five months. Entire army units ran in memory of those killed in Gaza, warming up with their service rifles slung around their neck, kibbutzniks ran for those missing and massacred and the pre-race DJ was the last to play at the Nova festival before the chaos erupted.

Hostage families spoke as the race got underway, their pain and resilience evident as a ceasefire, and the return of their loved ones remains elusive. A stage was erected just metres away from where, just a few days earlier, thousands of marchers ended their trek from Kibbutz Re’im to the Knesset to mark 150 days of captivity, imploring with an unpopular government to reach any compromise necessary to free the hostages from the tunnels of Gaza. In contrast with their silent protest, the marathon made so much noise that if Netanyahu were to simply open the window of his Knesset office, he would hear an almighty chorus calling on him to act.

Israel is a small country, where everyone knows someone who’s felt the impact of this war. As I ran (the 5k) I asked a woman who had a message on her shirt in Hebrew if the people whose pictures were on her chest were her family, she replied “they’re all our family”. And this year’s event had even more of a family feel than usual. In light of the war, the 4,000 or so foreign runners that usually compete were absent, replaced by the full spectrum of Israeli society - young frum men with flapping tzitzit, young mothers running with buggies, injured IDF soldiers, new immigrants from the US and Arab Israelis, including a Bedouin police officer responsible for saving lives during October 7. It was a reminder that while the rest of the world sees protests and unpleasant discourse about the war, Israeli society is largely still united - at least for now.

There was a special emphasis on the IDF in the race. At a press conference before the event, two injured soldiers talked about their pride in competing, even after being injured in Gaza. Itzik Wexler, the mayor of Jerusalem’s personal trainer is an avid runner, who has run the half marathon in the city more than five times.

Called up on October 7, he served for more than two months in Gaza, before an RPG hit the vehicle he was travelling in outside the Jabalya refugee camp. After weeks in hospital, he emerged to run this year’s 5k, and told me that running was something that sustained him while stuck in a hospital in Ashkelon. And this spirit was present in almost everyone that ran, no matter the distance. There were soldiers with newly fitted prosthetic legs, eyepatches and even white canes all running as much as they can, joining runners from charities from the globally active United Hatzalah to Kerem Or, a local blind and disabled organisation.

Israelis scarred by a horrendous war, looking for a release of energy from weeks of pain and also, a sense of community when their world has been shaken, came together in an event that was both emotional and inspiring. Jerusalem may not be the sort of marathon that draws big names like London or New York, but it did have one thing they don’t. It had a sense of national pride, of resilience, shown in the sea of hostage faces everywhere you looked - the only place in the world where no-one’s trying to tear them down.

March 08, 2024 10:20

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