Program joins Palestinians and Israelis as interns in the District

Israeli and Palestinian students come together in Washington to work toward a brighter future in the Middle East.
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

A sweltering June day at Reagan National Airport. Mariam Ashour walks to the parking lot, "freaking out in my mind," looking for someone she has never met. Noam Rabinovich sits in a car, trying to identify Ashour, with whom she has exchanged only a few messages on Facebook.

As they approach each other, something strange happens, something neither can fully explain.

They hug.

"I don't want to over-dramatize the moment, but time stopped for a second," Ashour said later. "To me it was, like, 'Wow.' I was very happy."

Rabinovich added, "It wasn't a conscious decision, just an instinct, which is very uncharacteristic of me, really."

Two interns, Israeli and Palestinian. For six weeks, they would live together in the District, courtesy of a nascent, shoestring operation called New Story Leadership for the Middle East. New Story, an offshoot of a group that brought together Protestant and Catholic youths during the conflict in Northern Ireland, sent 10 Israeli and Palestinian interns to Washington to see whether the idea of pairing youths from opposing sides could be replicated.

Rabinovich, an Israeli, would work for a Palestinian advocacy group. Ashour, a Palestinian, would work for a pro-Israel peace group. As four-day-a-week interns, they would do research, meet foreign-policy experts and do typical internship grunt work. And, together, they also would develop a plan for the organizations to contain increasing Jewish-Arab tensions on U.S. college campuses.

In their own way, the two interns would try to bridge a divide spawned by a never-ending conflict. For both women, the hug was a sign of determination, a shedding of doubt. But by summer's end, some doubts would return.

In the Middle East, their childhood homes are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well have grown up on different continents. For 20-year-old Ashour, whose family lives in Gaza, Rabinovich is the first Israeli to whom she has ever spoken who wasn't standing at a checkpoint or holding a gun.

Rabinovich, 26, spent nearly three years in the Israel Defense Forces, becoming an officer who commanded two mobile radar units on the outskirts of the Gaza Strip. She looked at Ashour: "My job was to make sure no one from your side comes to my side."

Changing a narrative

The basic fabric of our lives is stories and narratives, some handed down from parents and grandparents, others developed from personal experiences. The way a person looks at life -- and others -- is the product of those stories. But sometimes the narrative can be altered in unexpected ways, as Rabinovich and Ashour can attest.

Rabinovich spent the first nine years of her life on a kibbutz founded by her grandparents in 1938 -- before there was a state of Israel -- and then spent much of her teenage years in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. She was in Hong Kong when she met her first Palestinian.

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