Palestinian and Israeli chefs feel war’s ripples in their U.S. restaurants – Lifotravel

The first handwritten note mailed to Taylor Cheney’s small Seattle restaurant accused her of being a traitor and “sleeping with the enemy” after she held a fundraiser for Palestinian children.

Cheney, 37, was unnerved, and asked friends to walk her to work each day at Yalla Seattle — known for its blend of Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian cuisine. She also had to hire security for fundraising events for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund at the restaurant, she told The Washington Post.

A second note assumed she was Muslim and suggested she convert to Christianity, she said, adding that she also received a phone call to her personal number accusing her of supporting Hamas. Later, a voice mail that did the same ended by saying, “You are a very ignorant lady, and your business will suffer because of it.”

But patrons have not shied away. “We’ve never been busier,” Cheney said, adding that the restaurant did roughly 30 percent better in October compared with the previous month.

The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,400 people in southern Israel, followed by Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which has killed more than 10,000 people, has inflamed passions — both positive and negative — thousands of miles away. Ever since the Israel-Gaza war began, restaurant owners across the country say they have dealt with violent threats and phony online reviews, but they’ve also experienced a spike in support, donations and customers.

Many Palestinian and Israeli restaurant owners said they founded their establishments to help people understand different cultures and traditions through food. While the support they’ve received is not insignificant, the war has also exposed the fault lines in the United States. For Cheney, who is not Middle Eastern, to have gotten caught in the waves of hate and support shows how widespread the impact of the war is across the country.

In New York City, the Palestinian restaurant Ayat disconnected its phones after receiving a barrage of threatening voice mails and messages. One email seen by The Post read: “Savages. Palestine needs to be destroyed and it will.” Later, the Associated Press reported that a man walked into Ayat shouting “terrorist,” at those behind the counter. Across the country, Smitten, a Jewish-owned ice creamery, was vandalized with graffiti reading “Free Pelestien,” the San Francisco-based shop said in a statement. And in Los Angeles, the parking lot of the Jewish-owned Canters Deli was vandalized with phrases that read, “Israels only religion is capitalism,” “How many dead in the name of greed?” and “Free Gaza,” reported KTLA.

Many restaurant owners said they contacted the police but were unaware if any arrests had been made in response to the anonymous letters and comments.

For Cheney in Seattle, the threats came after a local television news station reported that she and her three employees had held a fundraiser in support for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.

Within the hour, Cheney received a storm of threatening calls. “The next day my Yelp and Google score dropped,” Cheney said. “There were reviews saying we’re terrorists and Hamas sympathizers, which is totally untrue and false.”

Yalla Seattle has in the past held fundraisers for groups such as Black Lives Matter and nonprofits that operate bail funds, but Cheney said those never received a similar negative response.

“Seattle is supposed to be pretty liberal and woke,” she said. “It’s fascinating that during Black Lives Matter everyone was speaking up but now no one is saying anything.”

Restaurant owners who have families trapped in the war, on either side, say they don’t know how to move forward in between worrying for their loved ones and dealing with threats.

For Yaniv Cohen, the owner of Jaffa, an Israeli restaurant near Miami, even the simple question of asking him how he’s doing has become loaded.

“It’s hard to put how I feel into words,” he said. “Food is about community and sharing good energy, and when the restaurant is empty you feel alone and deserted.”

In the last few weeks, 75 percent of Cohen’s patrons canceled their reservations after learning that he doesn’t have security at his establishment, he said.

Jaffa was set to host dozens of people for Shabbat dinner on Oct. 13; two days before the event, Cohen’s manager received a death threat on her cellphone, Cohen said. “Friday is your last day in this life we will all kill you,” read the text message, seen by The Post.

“We almost shut down the restaurant after that,” Cohen said. “But then [we] decided that we can’t give in to threats. We hosted that dinner.” Since then, however, the mood at Jaffa has been deflated.

“My family in Israel has to run to the shelter whenever there are sirens,” Cohen said. “How can we want to go out and celebrate when Israelis and Palestinians are suffering?”

In the thick of the threats, some restaurant owners are also seeing hope and support, especially after they announce fundraisers.

Alon Shaya, an Israeli American chef at Saba, an Israeli restaurant in New Orleans, said that, while he has received antisemitic messages, he has also seen an outpouring of support from customers after he announced a fundraiser to support Magen David Adom, the Israeli Red Cross.

The restaurant will donate a portion of proceeds for each classic tahini hummus it sells, Shaya announced.

Similarly, in Washington, Jinan Deena, the Palestinian American founder of a food pop-up called Bayti, has held three fundraisers since Oct. 7. Her donations are going to Palestinian refugees through the U.N. agency charged with their care, she said.

While Deena hasn’t experienced any hostility at her events — and her food sells out every time — she has received hateful messages on social media.

“Some messages threatened rape,” she said. “Same with beheadings, killing us all, bombing us, wiping us out … very violent messaging.”

Deena, who has family in Ramallah, said watching the violence unfold in Gaza and the West Bank has been difficult for her, but the fundraising events help a little.

“There’s a sense of community and comfort at these events,” she said.

For most restaurant owners, the hateful messages predate the latest assault. For years now, Tal Baum, the founder of Aziza, an Israeli restaurant in Atlanta, and her employees, have been receiving anonymous phone calls at the restaurant.

“It’s always pretty much the same message on the phone,” Baum said.

“They say, ‘How dare you steal our land and food,’ and ‘How can you serve this food in an Israeli restaurant when it is not Israeli?’” she said, referencing the long-running debate about the origins of Israeli food and how much Palestinian influence can be seen in dishes Israelis describe as theirs.

Reem Assil, a Palestinian Syrian chef who runs Reem’s California, an Arab bakery and restaurant in San Francisco, has also grown accustomed the hate-filled calls, fake reviews and social media messages over the years.

On Oct. 21, Assil’s establishment held a Spanish-language teach-in about Palestinians for staff members and the local community. When the workshop ended, a listener said, “We are here to bear witness,” Assil recalled.

“It was a poignant reminder that our restaurants, places where we share food and culture and humanity, can help protect us in difficult times,” she said.

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