British Columbia

Israeli and Palestinian chefs break down barriers through food and friendship

Two best friends are pairing up to offer a Middle Eastern feast every week at the University of British Columbia but the unique lunch is more than just falafel and hummus — it’s about tearing down walls.

Chefs Itamar Shani and Haitham El Khatib are collaborating on lunch events at UBC all semester

Itamar Shani, left, is from Israel and Haitham El Khatib, right, is Palestinian. The two are now best friends. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

Two best friends are pairing up to offer a Middle Eastern feast every week at the University of British Columbia but the unique lunch is more than just falafel and hummus — it's about tearing down walls.

The "Taste of Coexistence" lunches are hosted by two chefs: one is Jewish and from Israel, the other is Muslim and of Palestinian descent.

Both run restaurants in Vancouver, where their friendship has flourished despite what they were taught growing up.

"In Arab countries, on TV, they never acknowledge Israel — they always say the 'Zionist occupation, the occupying enemy,'" said Haitham El Khatib, 33.

He grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and moved to Canada in 2016.

"If you are found to have any interactions with Israel, on any level, you are basically collaborating with the enemy," he recalled.

The food is prepared by the friends' two restaurants in Vancouver: Aleph and Chickpea. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

Overcoming 'ancestral trauma'

Itamar Shani, 30, grew up in an Israeli settlement. As a child, he used to visit a nearby Arab village with his father on the weekends until, one day after the First Intifada uprising in the late 1980s, a wall was built between the two towns.

"They build a really, really high wall and said 'Behind this wall there is Arabs, there are terrorists, it's very dangerous,'" Shani told CBC's Vivian Luk. 

Shani served the mandatory three years with the Israeli defense forces and watched colleagues be killed. His mother, Shani said, warned him to be careful about trusting Palestinians.

Six years ago, he moved to Canada where he met El Khatib. 

Those same conversations and concerns about trust surfaced again when the pair decided to start collaborating for the UBC lunch events.

"There was a time in the planning of those events where that rhetoric of 'You don't know who they are, you can't trust them' came up for me," said El Khatib.

"There is ancestral trauma."

Itamar Shani, far left, and Haitham El Khatib, far right, with their wives and children. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

'The face of coexistence'

The pair hope that by showcasing their friendship and celebrating what Palestinians and Israelis have in common, rather than focusing on the differences, they will help change attitudes.

"In a small scale of success, it is our families — my son and his daughter. They are the face of coexistence, they are growing up [together]," said Shani.  

Taste of Coexistence lunches are hosted every Wednesday until the end of the semester at UBC's Hillel House.

With files from The Early Edition and Vivian Luk

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