From food carts to fine dining establishments, Jewish- and Arab-American-owned restaurants have become another hot spot amid the Gaza conflict, with some facing vandalism and harassment or being targeted by protesters .
A pro-Palestinian rally two weeks ago outside Townhouse, an upscale restaurant and bar in downtown Detroit, led its owner to contact law enforcement and increase security, a spokesperson said. word. In social media posts, people could be heard chanting at Jeremy Sasson, CEO of Heirloom Hospitality Group: “How many children have you killed today?” Protesters waved Palestinian flags as police watched across the street, while another group waved an Israeli flag in opposition.
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Restaurants and food culture have always sparked protests and boycotts – from the Boston Tea Party to the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights era – gaining prominence because of their public visibility and representation of ‘a community.
Sasson, who is Jewish-American of Israeli descent, has previously said he has received anti-Semitic backlash – and a slew of negative criticism online – for being a staunch supporter of Israel. Palestinian activists, however, countered that they were not objecting to a person’s religious beliefs, but rather to supporting the Israel Defense Forces.
But Sasson denies having any significant influence.
“As a Jewish business owner based in Michigan, with no ability to impact or influence the power or actions of the Israeli government, these protests feel like an effort to shame, embarrass, or “punishing me for my religion, and less about an effort to benefit the community. Many Palestinians are suffering in Gaza,” he said in a statement to NBC News. “I am not an activist, I am not an Israeli citizen and it is clear that the protesters do not hesitate to use anti-Zionism to justify anti-Semitism.”
But as an ongoing war approaches its third month and the death toll continues to climb, American restaurateurs such as Sasson have found themselves at the center of a different kind of controversy, if only because they talk openly about who they are and the struggles. between Israel and Hamas, or simply running a business clearly linked to a Jewish or Palestinian identity.
Although the exact number of restaurants affected is unclear, cases have been piling up in recent weeks: a Jewish-owned bagel shop in Miami, a Palestinian tea house in Cleveland, a Jewish deli in Los Angeles, a kosher restaurant in New York. York and a Mediterranean restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin.
Madison police said the Dubai Mediterranean restaurant suffered “substantial damage,” including anti-Islamic graffiti, early Tuesday and that they were investigating the possible hate crime.
The restaurant reopened Thursday and thanked customers on Facebook for their support, writing, “Hate has no place and will not stop us.”
In Philadelphia earlier this month, a crowd gathered outside Goldie, an Israeli-style falafel shop – “Goldie, Goldie, you can’t hide. We accuse you of genocide,” protesters chanted – drawing condemnation from the White House and Pennsylvania. Governor Josh Shapiro. (Two employees at Goldie, which is co-owned by Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov, claim they were fired for wearing pro-Palestinian flag pins at work, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.) Goldie did not immediately respond to a request for comment. .
In Brooklyn, New York, the Palestinian restaurant chain Ayat, which was cited in the New York Times in October for having a significant Jewish clientele and whose menu includes a “down with the occupation” statement, later told The Associated Press he was receiving threatening voice messages “non-stop,” co-owner Abdul Elenani said. On Yelp, reviews range from accusations that the restaurant is “anti-Semitic” to “victims of racism and hatred.”
In an Instagram post on Thursday, Ayat defended the language on his menu.
Also in New York, a former national security adviser to the Obama administration was arrested last month and charged with harassment and stalking after videos allegedly showed him harassing and verbally abusing a salesman. food carts in Manhattan with Islamophobic language.
“You are in favor of killing little children,” former councilman Stuart Seldowitz, 64, told the seller in one of the videos.
Seldowitz could not be reached for comment, but in an interview with NBC New York, he said he was sensitive to the tensions caused by the war between Israel and Hamas and that they were sparked when the seller allegedly declared that he supported Hamas.
“Comments that went beyond him and were interpreted as attacks on Muslims and Arab Americans and so on were probably not appropriate,” Seldowitz said. “The comments I made denouncing him for his support of terrorism, I think they were appropriate.”
Restaurants are public consumption spaces and are generally accessible to everyone, making them prime places to exert influence and financial support, said Angela Jill Cooley, an associate professor at Minnesota State University who studies eating habits and the history of segregated restaurants.
But there are differences between what is happening today and past protests.
“During the civil rights movement, black Americans were protesting local businesses, and these local businessmen could and did influence local government to change its laws and practices,” Cooley said. “I don’t imagine that Jewish or Middle Eastern restaurants have any influence on Israel or Hamas.”
Still, “because these are Jewish spaces and Middle Eastern spaces, that would make these places very obvious symbols of a particular culture,” she added.
In recent weeks, groups that track bias have seen an increase in anti-Semitic threats and incidents, as well as an uptick in similar Islamophobic events.
Restaurateurs say these events can also have a financial cost, forcing them to increase security measures or lose business.
Jeremy Lebewohl, owner of 2nd Ave. Deli on Manhattan’s Upper East Side said its storefront was vandalized with a swastika after it posted pro-Israel messages on social media in October. He has since asked his staff to be “very vigilant” and hired a guard.
“It’s a sad reality, but we have to be aware of what’s happening. If someone leaves a bag on the ground unattended…” he says, trailing off.
He said he reported the swastika vandalism to the New York City Police Department but was not aware of any updates on the case. The New York Police Department said Friday that no arrests had been made, but the investigation was ongoing.
What has stood out to Lebewohl since the incident is both the hostility and support his grocery store has received.
“I know people have written horrible, disgusting things” on social media, he said. “We received messages from people saying they would never come to our restaurant because of our support for Israel.”
But there are also glimmers of kindness, he adds, that give him hope: “We’ve had customers come up and tell us they’re there specifically because of the swastika and what’s going on. “
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