The struggle between Palestinians and Jews in New York escalates and shows up on the plate
Although Israeli restaurants in New York are doing better business than ever, the political chasm is already polarising chefs and others in hospitality who once symbolised coexistence and culinary cooperation, including Reem Kassis and Michael Solomonov.
By Haim Handwerker *
Bustan, New York’s Upper West Side restaurant celebrating Israeli-Tel Aviv cuisine, was packed yesterday. It was a Monday evening, known by restaurants to be the worst night for business. But in Bustan’s case, it wasn’t only packed, but many of diners were even turned away because there was no room. Where did they all come from? Good question. It may have something to do with the fact that earlier that evening the New York Jewish Federation (UJA) held a pro Israel rally not far from there. This show of solidarity, which took place only 10 minutes walk from the restaurant, featured Idan Raichel, Senator Chuck Schumer, and around 10,000 others.
It’s true, antisemitism is rising and that can be strongly felt across the US ever since the attack by Hamas a month ago. It is no different in New York. The anti-Israel rallies grow each week and attract bigger and bigger crowds. Israeli New Yorkers are feeling down, many say they struggle to sleep, overcome by anxiety and depression. Even in the blooming hi-tech sector, which led thousands of Israelis to migrate to New York over the last decade, even there people report feeling depressed. Israeli psychologists in the city report a spike in Israeli or local Jewish client referrals. But ultimately, it’s still New York, and most of its Jewish and Israeli residents feel safe here.
After the initial shock of the first week of the war, New York’s Israeli restaurants have been trying to act businessalmost as usual. Although quite a few of those restaurant owners confess fearing anti-Israeli or antisemitic attacks, but remain determined to show solidarity, and give the diners what they want. For example, 19 Cleveland, facing anti-Israeli demonstrators only a week ago, continues to enjoy a full house, as evidenced by those turned away during peak hour. And at 12 Chairs Café they even danced on the tabletops during rush hour, as they had done every night prior to the war. If there’s been a drop in clientele, it was felt mainly in the first week, when collective morale had dropped.
However, this (Monday) morning, Israeli and Jewish chefs in New York opened the New York Times only to find a page long article titled, Among American Chefs, the Israel-Hamas War has Spread to Food. It said that Israeli and Palestinian chefs who once cooked together will no longer return to do so. The story opened with Reem Kassis, Palestinian cuisine writer who cooked on many occasions with chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov, owner of the acclaimed Zahav in Philadelphia, and Laser Wolf, one of New York’s trendiest restaurants. Solomonov, whose brother died fighting along Israel’s northern border, is considered a pioneer who introduced Israeli cuisine to the US, and even won the James Beard award, the Oscar of the American culinary world.
In 2017, Kassis, then living in Philadelphia, send a copy of her book, The Palestinian Table, to Solomonov, who returned the favour by promoting it to the American public as an example of coexistence in the culinary world. Now Kassis says that she and the man who had become her close friend barely talk anymore. She says that food diplomacy no longer works. The bridge has collapsed and there’s no way we can resolve problems like the Israeli Occupation with a plate of hummus. And while we’re talking hummus, Kim Severson of the New York Times maintains that such dishes have once again become weaponised like never before, when one side claims Israeli appropriation and cultural theft, while Israeli food folks in the US respond that that’s a false narrative.
In Solomonov’s Philadelphia, The Philly Palestine Coalition has formed to demand boycotting Israel restaurants, products, and events, to protest Israeli attacks on Gaza. As the owner of about 20 businesses who’s usually openly pro-Israeli, Solomonov refuses to respond to Kassis’ claims, as well as those of the Philly Palestine Coalition.
Meanwhile, the newspaper goes on to report that the war between Israel and Hamas has polarised American cultural institutions, and is now impacting the culinary world, as conveyed in a petition signed by 900 or so chefs so far, as well as food manufacturers and industry workers calling for a boycott of Israeli food to protest Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
Among the signatories are esteemed chef and author Samin Nosrat, New Yorker’s food writer Helen Rosner, and founder of Whetstone and narrator of High on the Hog, Stephen Satterfield. The petition doesn’t mention Hamas’s attack on Israel, the 1,400 dead, or the abductions of children, elderly people, and women, into Gaza.
As part of the struggle, the article stated, Palestinian food businesses in the US report that they’ve been flooded with negative reviews and lost their ratings, while on the other hand, there is a growing demand to boycott Israeli restaurants across the US. In New York it seems that for now, this call has not yet been heeded. But no restaurant owner wants to take part in the fight.