It’s a little after 7 a.m., and Yehonatan Toker is making some breakfast sandwiches; one for himself and one for his housemate, Hamze Awawde. Both men are a little bleary-eyed — neither has had his coffee yet.
As the bread toasts and the coffee brews, their attention turns to the news. The fighting between Israel and Hamas is all they can think about lately. They talk a lot about it too.
A breakfast conversation about the news isn’t so unusual, except for the people who are having it. Toker, who’s 28, is an Israeli military reserve officer from Jerusalem. Awawde, 24, is Palestinian peace activist whose grandfather was a Fatah official.
Back home, these two wouldn’t interact like this. They’d probably never meet. And yet, they’re here in a house in Washington, DC, sharing coffee and sandwiches.
Toker and Awawde are part of an unusual internship program in Washington called New Story Leadership. It brings emerging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the US to work at organizations that represent different sides of the debate.
But there’s a twist — participants are placed at organizations representing the other side. Awawde, the Palestinian, works at Americans for Peace Now, a pro-Israel group. Toker, the Israeli, is at the American Task Force on Palestine. He says it has been a challenging experience.
“For me, as a captain in the reserve to come to an office with the [Palestinian] flags and the maps and the opinions, this is a daily struggle. This is me getting out of my comfort zone,” Toker says.
Part of getting out of that comfort zone is living with Awawde. Up to this point, most of Toker’s interaction with the other side happened during his five years as an Israeli military officer.
“Growing up, I never had the chance to have this kind of discussion or experience with anyone from the Palestinian side,” he says.
Awawde has had more experience with Israelis because of his peace activism. He’s from Dura, a West Bank city where an Israeli soldier shot and killed a Palestinian teenager during a raid in June. Awawde has strong views about the conflict, but that doesn’t mean he thinks dialogue is impossible.
“Changing the narratives is not an option because everyone believes in their own narrative. It’s identity for them, it’s who they are,” Awawde says. “What we’re trying to do is agree on the new narrative, the new story, the future, how we want our narratives to continue.”
That’s hard to do right now, with the death toll rising back home. So, for now, the two housemates are trying to focus on learning about each other. They’ve explored DC together — monuments, museums, the whole capital tourist shebang. Awawde says, at this point, Toker feels like a brother.
“He respects where he came from, but he still sees the other. He’s interested and he gives the effort to know what is inside me. He doesn’t take it away. He thinks about it, he deals with it, he asks about it,” Awawde says.
For Toker, living with Awawde has been critical to the whole experience here.
“I couldn’t ask for a better present for this summer than to meet Hamze and share our house together, to share dinners and breakfasts and laughter, going on the Metro together, seeing DC together.”
Yes, the two talk about politics. But they also talk about movies and music and girls — and they are always teasing each other.
They’ll be housemates through the end of July. Then they return to their respective homes where they hope to continue the dialogue. Given the violence and the level of animosity there now, that could prove a challenge. But right now, from the neutral zone of their DC kitchen, they say they intend to maintain their friendship.
“I’m sure when we go back, our friendship will continue,” says Awawde, “and maybe it will be an example for many people to try to try to deal with the other person as a human.”