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Collection of black and green olives at a market stand
Olives at a stall in Machne Yehuda Market, Jerusalem. Rebecca Haboucha, Author provided

Restaurants outside of Palestine and Israel are being attacked in protest of the war

In the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 2023 and the ensuing war between Palestine and Israel, there has been a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia around the world.

Much of this hate-driven crime has been committed against restaurants owned by Israelis and Palestinians, as well as by Jewish and Muslim people. Scholars highlight the long-standing trend of restaurants being attacked, physically or virtually, on social media, in relation to sociopolitical events.

My research looks at culinary heritage and diaspora. People attacking restaurants in protest create a false dichotomy between food culture and national conflict, wherein one group casts the opposing group’s restaurants variously as villains or as diplomats. The question is what power such protest can wield in addressing war abroad.

People queue in front of a restaurant.
Customers show support to Goldie Falafel in Philadelphia after an antisemitic protest. Associated Press|Alamy

Food as a tool for soft power and protest

Throughout the 20th century, food has been used as a tool for soft power, that is a means for achieving influence through means other than directly political ones.

When places like restaurants and warehouses, where food is sourced or served, have become sites of protest, the aim has been to directly address a contemporary issue (segregation in the American south, human rights violations in apartheid South Africa or diplomatic relations between Japan and Korea). The protest is about enacting a change that could have observable, immediate effect by addressing those responsible.

Restaurants do often represent ethnic or national cuisines. This can build the public’s idea of a particular community’s cuisine.

However, very few diasporic restaurants are sponsored by the diaspora’s home government as a resource for diplomacy. More often, the restaurant’s culinary culture is related to the owner’s personal identity. In this way, the restaurant operates what might be termed “unofficial” culinary diplomacy.

The attacks perpetrated against Israeli and Palestinian food stores and restaurants over the past five months, however, follow a different model.

In London, one attack on a restaurant, which was later classified as a burglary, evoked fear in the Jewish community. This led to public comments by local politicians condemning the excuse to target Jews as a response to the outbreak of conflict in the Middle East.

Similarly, a Palestinian takeaway in London has been receiving dozens of death threats, daily. The staff have spoken about being frightened and intimidated.

In Philadelphia, the Philly Palestine Coalition stormed an Israeli restaurant, Goldie Falafel, after closing time, chanting: “Goldie, Goldie, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” This accusation was rightly likened to the long-recognised antisemitic trope of “blood libel”.

Dating back to the middle ages, blood libel accused Jewish people of killing Christians to use their blood in Jewish ritual. The unfounded accusation that a Jewish restaurant owner is “genocidal” is a modern iteration of that idea in that it wrongly views a Jewish individual – and the Jewish people – as violent and hateful against others and uses that view as a justification for antisemitism.

The restaurant’s owner, Michael Solomonov, does not hide the Israeli inspiration of his restaurants or his Israeli-American identity. However, the fact that the restaurant was closed at the time of the attack shows that the protestors’ accusation was not entirely about the owner himself. Rather, it was an attempt to publicly scare Jews and hold them responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.

Eating together can create community

In this kind of attack, a national cuisine (Israeli or Palestinian) becomes a nationalistic symbol. The distinction is important. The protesting group simplifies their understanding of a national character and imposes it on the restaurant and the local community it is a part of, in a bid to justify its iconoclasm. By targeting a restaurant that identifies with a specific cuisine, the protester makes that restaurant’s owner responsible for the actions of an entire group, or country.

In so doing, the protestor also dehumanises the “other”. These attacks preclude any attempt to engage in a nuanced conversation with those of differing opinions, a phenomenon mirrored on social media.

This point is made clearer by the fact that protesters have also targeted kosher and halal outlets, that have links to neither Israel nor Palestine.

Research shows that the act of equating Israel with all Jews and speaking of Judaism as a homogenised entity is antisemitic. In the same way, attacking anyone or anything that is Muslim, in response to Hamas’s actions, is Islamophobic.

Restaurants, ironically, are precisely the kind of spaces where nuanced understanding can actually be built through what is termed commensality – the act of eating together.

For the owners of Ayat, a Palestinian restaurant in Brooklyn, food is a way to bring people together.

This has been evident both in some responses to attacks on restaurants and in actions restaurants themselves have taken. Contrary to iconoclastic or dehumanising protest, some have chosen to create opportunities for diners to find comfort in being together.

On the day after the rally outside Goldie Falafel, hundreds of customers showed up in solidarity. They bought and ate falafel. Some prayed together.

In January, meanwhile, a Palestinian restaurant in Brooklyn called Ayat rose above the threatening calls and online messages they had received since December, by hosting a meal for the Jewish Sabbath.

They provided meals to over 1,300 customers. People came from across all communities – Muslim, Jewish and others – looking to support the restaurant. This act of eating together was about finding hope in a hopeless situation.

Access to food is playing a central role in the conflict itself. In Gaza, Palestinians are facing famine and starvation. Aid has been hampered, with the World Food Programme citing “complete chaos and violence” for its decision to halt deliveries.

In Israel, meanwhile, around 200,000 people have been internally displaced by the war. This has led to new initiatives for food sharing and volunteering in the agriculture sector.

Ayat’s owners said that through their Shabbat meal, they wished to convey a message of peace and shared humanity that has largely been lacking from this conflict. Food has the incredible power to unite, to provide natural spaces for conversations and to heal, if we let it. In a time of overwhelming grief, it is worth remembering that food is charged with the power we give it.

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