US Palestinian business owners speak up for Gaza amid swell of support

·6 min read

Most Palestinian-owned businesses in the US weave hints of their culture into the business: traditional Palestinian embroidery, keffiyah scarves or ouds decorate restaurant spaces; social media feeds are peppered with old photos or maps of Palestine prior to the 1948 creation of Israel.

But publicizing views on current and historic Palestinian/Israeli politics can be tricky, to put it lightly.

However, the recent violence in the Gaza strip and Israel in May, leaving an estimated 248 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead, made some Palestinian business owners in the US re-evaluate what to state publicly about the conflict.

While Israel’s new government and prime minister Naftali Bennett replacing Benjamin Netanayhu dominate the headlines, unrest has continued and US Palestinians are speaking out.

“It’s my obligation as a human being, let alone Palestinian, to post about what’s going on, and to educate people,” says Kamel Jamal, owner of the Palestinian restaurant Ziatün in Beacon, New York. Jamal was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan when his parents fled Ramallah in 1967.

“I try and keep the business out of the politics,” concedes Jamal, “but enough so they know where we stand.” He recently affixed a sign in the restaurant window that reads “Palestinian Human Rights” in white block letters over a red heart. Several of Ziatün’s social media posts are clearly in support of Palestinians, but Jamal leaves the more opinionated posts for his personal, but public feed.

He’s aware his pro-Palestinian views might alienate some customers, but notes, “Every time I wave my Palestinian flag, or say this is a Palestinian restaurant, we’ve gotten more business than lost.”

In the US, advocating for Palestinian human rights has often been equated with being anti-Jewish and even supportive of violence towards Israelis. Speaking up for Palestinian human rights can be a difficult predicament for Palestinian business owners who depend on their customers to stay afloat.

Now perceptions are changing.

In Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, traditional Palestinian dishes are served in earthenware plates at the restaurant Ayat NYC, from yogurt-y lamb mansaf to the m’sakhan, roast chicken with onions and pine nuts atop taboon flatbread.

The bustling bistro features a mural of Jerusalem’s al-Asqa Mosque with Israeli soldiers pointing a machine gun at jailed Palestinians on one wall; customers can take home leftovers in to-go bags that have, “down with the occupation” in English, Arabic and Hebrew running up the sides, also on the menu.

“I’m trying to be diplomatic in the sense that I don’t want to hurt or offend anybody,” says co-owner Ayat Masoud of the restaurant’s décor, “but I don’t want to do it at the expense of hiding the truth, either.”

Masoud and Abdul Elinani, her co-owner and husband, who is of Egyptian descent, similarly don’t hold back on Ayat NYC’s social media feeds. Interspersed with artistic platters and behind the scenes cooking posts, are images of rubble from the recent siege on Gaza and dead bombing victims shrouded with Palestinian flags. Also in the mix are shots of the Bay Ridge Palestinian rally on 15 May, Nabka Day, which marks the historic displacement of Palestinians by the creation of Israel.

Ayat NYC received an onslaught of negative Yelp and Google reviews for its political stance, Yelp even closed its account for two months, according to Elinani, but neighborhood regulars and tourists, continue to return – a positive New York Times review didn’t hurt.

Not all Palestinian restaurants are mixing business with politics. The stalwart Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen, that has been in business for more than two decades, also in Bay Ridge, and the much-praised Qanoon in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, chose not to address the latest violence on their social media feeds. They declined to comment.

A patchwork of photos, including several of the late Anthony Bourdain when he visited Gaza in 2013, decorate Freddy Zeideia’s King of Falafel & Shawarma, in Astoria, Queens. Classic Arabic music plays as chicken sizzles on the grill and its slogan “yeahhhhhbaby” dots multiple surfaces, from menus to the delivery scooter outside.

Zeideia, originally from a village outside Ramullah in the West Bank, recently felt emboldened to affix a poster of a keffiyeh wrapped man waiving the Palestinian flag that states “Palestinian and Proud” in the front window. He, along with other Palestinian business owners, has felt a shift in the US public’s perception of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and attributes it to social media. Images and videos of Gaza’s recent destruction went viral all over the globe; the major newspapers and TV networks have historically controlled the news out of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

King of Falafel customers seem blasé walking by the pro-Palestinian poster, quite different from Zeideia’s experience when launching his first food truck eight months after the 9/11 attacks, when some passersby had called him a terrorist. He chased them down with a basket of falafel, offering free samples.

Zeideia’s son Nidal Zeideia, who grew up in the West Bank and the US, says he’s surprised by the recent swell of Palestinian support among the general public, “because the same thing has been going on for years”.

Brothers Danny and Johnny Dubbaneh are the driving force behind Z&Z, a family business based in Rockville, Maryland. Z&Z makes and sells their own za’atar herb blend, sourced from Jenin in the West Bank and manoushes, a type of flatbread. The brothers’ father arrived in the US in the late 1970s from Jordan after leaving Ramallah, followed by their mother in the early 1980s; they recently started hanging the Palestinian flag on the front of their farmer’s market table, outside Washington in Fairfax, Virginia.

Z&Z’s marketing is typically lighthearted and infused with humor (they made a video of the family’s elder stateswomen tasting Trader Joe’s za’atar that went viral on Twitter) but they couldn’t remain silent as images of Gaza and Jerusalem emerged. They wrote a thoughtful post for their social media feeds summarizing their support for Palestinian human rights and resources how to help.

“The shameful reality is that the simple attempt to advocate for very basic Palestinian human rights,” explains Danny Dubbaneh in an email, “exposes us to unfair and untrue criticisms.”

Similarly, Michel Moushabeck, founder of Interlink Publishing that launched in the late 1980s, recalls the uproar when they published Joudie Kalla’s cookbook Palestine on a Plate in 2016. “Even this simple acknowledgment of Palestinian identity and culture,” Moushabeck writes in an email with his daughter Leyla Moushabeck, an Interlink editor, “was perceived by many as provocative, controversial, political”.

Moushabeck’s parents fled their Qatamon neighborhood home in Jerusalem in 1948, where an Israeli family still lives, according to Mr. Moushabeck. Interlink has advocated openly on all its platforms for Palestinian human rights since its inception and continues to receive hate mail.

Reem Assil, an outspoken and unflappable businesses owner of Palestinian descent (her mother fled Gaza in 1967) owns the Arab street bakery Reem’s California in the Bay Area. According to Assil, her customers were tremendously supportive and even asked how they could help amplify Palestinian voices during the siege on Gaza.

“As a Palestinian I felt seen and heard in a way I have never felt before,” writes Assil in an email, “I was able to grieve for my family in Gaza out in the open and be openly critical of the US role in supporting apartheid without getting backlash.”

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