Running while Jewish: London Marathon edition

As I ran miles festooned by huge Palestinian flags, with no Union Jack in sight, I tensed up - until some runners and bystanders yelled: Am Yisrael Chai!
London Marathon Finish Line (image courtesy of the author)
Finish line of the 2024 London Marathon. (courtesy)

I registered to run the London Marathon with the war in Gaza raging, with antisemitism in the UK increased by 589 percent in the months preceding the race. When the war broke out, I attended weekly solidarity marches in my hometown of New York City to raise awareness for the hostages taken from Israel. Clad in running attire, I wore an Israeli flag tied around my neck and draped along my back, blowing in the wind. Each week as I walked to the gathering, cars would honk, passersby would high five me, and shouts of “Am Yisrael Chai” found me. Dashing through Central Park with my Israeli flag flying behind me like a superman cape, I felt invincible and all the more determined to Bring. Them. Home. Before the war, I had been more of a dilettante than an activist for Jewish causes, but now Jewish advocacy was my drug.

Headed to London, I packed my Israeli flag determined to run all 42.2 kilometers with the superman cape floating at my back. As I arrived in London, a news story broke, reporting that a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke was told by London police that he could not walk past a Palestinian protest on a public street because, being “openly Jewish,” he “might provoke a reaction.” He was required to walk around the block and avoid the protesters. Registered to run the marathon with a dear and non-Jewish friend, I forewarned her that my “openly Jewish” attire “might provoke a reaction.” She was wholly supportive and showed no discomfort with my plan.

As we approached the starting corrals, a passerby high-fived me with an “Am Yisrael Chai.” The magic was starting. A couple of miles into the race, a sweaty arm draped across my back and a runner “Am Yisrael Chai”’d me. Wonderful! Further in, a woman approached and told me she was so proud of me for wearing “our flag.” Another runner grabbed my shoulders from behind and shouted “Go, Israel!” He asked me if he could share my race number with his spectating family who would track me and cheer for me. As I continued the race, pockets of strangers would suddenly belt out “Am Yisrael Chai, we love you!” I assume at least some of these were his friends and family.

I crossed the Tower bridge about 20 kilometers into the race, and I saw a massive Palestinian flag raised up a streetlamp pole. Then another, and another, and another. Miles and miles of the race course were festooned by a corridor of huge Palestinian flags — and no British (or any other country’s) flags, only Palestinian ones. Enormous ones hung so high that they could only have been raised using some sort of industrial equipment. All of matching enormous size and quality fabric — there were no grass roots to this movement. The absence of British civic pride in the face of support exclusively for the Palestinian cause made me uneasy. What about the hostages? The civilians pulled from their beds and slaughtered?

I had never expected to be surrounded by only anti-Israel sentiment. Other runners casually remarked while passing me, “What’s with all the flags?” “Did you notice there are no British flags?” “Is this London or Gaza City?” Slowly, the sweaty-armed hugs, the kind gestures, the shouts of pride and other acts of support reminded me that I was surrounded by love from both Jews and allies. As a “Free Palestine” drumming crew came into view along the sidewalk, a fellow runner locked arms with me and said, “We’ll run by together,” and we shouted in unison “Am Yisrael Chai” without incident.

The race wore on as we continued along the corridor of Palestinian flags from about the 20th kilometer through perhaps the 32nd kilometer. Returning to London’s city center, the Palestinian flags dissipated. Somewhere along that stretch, a runner approached me and offered support for the Jewish cause. We chatted a bit, and she offered: “I’m a Catholic girl from Staten Island, New York. Thirty years ago, my high school history teacher urged us to always be part of ‘Never again,’ and I haven’t forgotten the lesson. I support you with all of my heart!”

Along the route, different charity groups staff curbside tables offering runners food and drink. As I neared the end, a group wearing matching black t-shirts was handing out some sort of orange drink that did not appeal to me. As I got closer, I saw that the group name written on all the shirts was “Muslim Runners for Palestine.” I didn’t want to refuse the kindness of spectator support in the wrong way; the drink didn’t appeal to me, but I didn’t want my Israeli flag to mark me as a hostile or ungrateful Jew. A man thrust the orange drink within my grasp and I responded, “Orange isn’t my thing . . . but peace and co-existence are; I salute you!” To which he replied, “Amin! To peace for all!”

As if that ending wasn’t a fabulous way to meld together all the emotional inputs over the hours and the miles, I texted my finish line photo to my beloved Jewish advocacy group back home, the Israeli flag rotated from my back to my front side, the finisher medal resting comfortably on my chest in the cradle of the beautiful Israeli flag, and a corridor of huge British Union Jack flags surrounding me.

My finish line photo was posted in our advocacy group announcements as motivation for our group’s work, with the tagline “Loud and Proud.” The miles wore me down and the political climate gave me a challenge I hadn’t faced in prior marathons. But earning the love of strangers, scaffolding my Jewish pride in the face of opposition, and making my home team proud of me made this the race of a lifetime. Our battle to end Jew hatred is still raging, but that battle is a marathon, not a sprint. Love won in London, and love will win again.

About the Author
Melinda Thaler is an American attorney living in New York City and an activist with the End Jew Hatred civil rights movement.
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