Tue, 12/05/2023 – 02:31
June was working at the Goldie restaurant in Philadelphia on Sunday night when protesters started assembling outside the Israeli-American-owned eatery waving Palestinian flags.
“Goldie, Goldie, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” they chanted.
The 24-year-old June, who asked to be identified by his first name only, told Middle East Eye that they watched the rally through the window of the restaurant which sells falafel, hummus and other Middle Eastern cuisine. June was shift-leading at the time.
“I remember thinking it was a big crowd, given it had been raining,” June said.
“No one inside was bothered. I didn’t feel unsafe. There were orthodox Jews taking part in the protest. We even had a customer come into the business,” June, who is also Jewish, added.
After a few minutes, the protesters left.
When June went home after the shift, they found social media alight with accusations that the crowd had targeted the restaurant because it was a Jewish establishment.
But June says they knew that this wasn’t a case of antisemitism.
“The protesters had assembled outside Goldie because the restaurant owner had sent money to an aid organisation that supported the Israeli military. They had come because two employees at Goldie were fired for expressing support for Palestine,” June told MEE.
“If you believe calling for the end of a genocide is antisemitic, you need to reassess how you define Judaism,” June added.
Outraged by the feverish pace with which the false narrative of a marauding mob intimidating a business on account of their Jewishness was being amplified on the internet and the news media, June posted on social media in support of the protesters.
“If you don’t want to be directly funding genocide, stay away from Goldie, Kfar, Federal Donuts, Laser Wolf or Zahav. Goldie’s parent company CookNSolo held a fundraiser where sales from all their restaurants went to an org [sic] that gives supplies to the IDF [Israeli military],” June wrote.
On the way to work the next morning, June received a call from the restaurant. They were told that they were no longer needed and they was fired with immediate effect.
That made June the third person at Goldie to be fired on account of their pro-Palestinian advocacy since 7 October when Israel’s war on Palestine began.
Since late Sunday, the US media, prominent Jewish Americans, Philadelphia’s mayor, several lawmakers, and even the White House have issued statements condemning the protests outside the restaurant.
“This is idiotic and dangerous. Protest outside the Israeli consulate or the offices of your member of Congress, not Jewish or Israeli-owned restaurants,” prominent Jewish-American writer Peter Beinart wrote.
Likewise, Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, described the incident as “antisemitic and completely unjustifiable to target restaurants that serve Israeli food over disagreements with Israeli policy”.
On Tuesday, US Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, called Michael Solomonov, the owner of the restaurant group, to express support for his business.
But former employees at Goldie as well as pro-Palestine advocates who either organised or participated in the protest say the outrage was manufactured to distract from both the crimes of the Israeli state and those who have chosen to support it.
“While Goldie was not the goal of our protest, we briefly paused and led chants [outside the restaurant] because the owner, Michael Solomonov, has used proceeds from the restaurant to fund an organisation that works directly with the Israeli Occupational forces,” Natalie Abulhawa, a spokesperson from the Philly Palestine Coalition, said.
Abulhalwa said that the group spent only a few minutes outside the restaurant and moved on to other stops before continuing the rally.
“We also stopped at Starbucks for the same reason and then continued to march. Our march was roughly three hours long and we stopped at Goldie’s for four minutes, at most,” Abulhalwa added.
June, who was at the business at the time, confirmed to MEE that the protesters were only around for a few minutes.
Sophie Hamilton, who worked at Goldie for more than two years, including as a store manager, confirmed to MEE that Solomonov had held a fundraiser in mid-October, where $100,000 was raised for United Hatzalah, an Israeli emergency aid organisation based in Jerusalem.
She said Goldie, part of the CooknSolo company, was not some small-time “mom-and-pop” business, but a sprawling company whose owner was appointed by the Israeli tourism ministry as its culinary ambassador for Israel in 2017. Solomonov is an Israeli chef who owns four restaurants in the Philadelphia area under the CookNSolo banner.
According to a statement released by the Israeli authorities at the time, the role was designed “to champion Israel’s extraordinarily diverse and vibrant culinary landscape”.
Hamilton said the company had mischaracterised United Hatzalah to staff as “non-partisan, non-military aligned, like the Red Cross”, when a cursory internet search showed that not only did the charity openly collaborate with the Israeli military, they also spoke like an arm of the Israeli state.
“The influx of terrorists infiltrating Israeli territory and the resulting high number of injured individuals also prompted United Hatzalah to provide additional medical supplies and protective equipment to IDF teams on the ground,” a statement issued in late October by United Hatzalah, reads.
“Since the beginning of the war, United Hatzalah medical teams have treated over 3,000 soldiers and civilians and provided more than 900 soldiers, civilians, and volunteers with psychological first aid. The organization also delivered over 30 tons of medical supplies and humanitarian aid to the IDF and residents of southern Israel,” the statement added.
Hamilton said when she had discovered the information, she refused to take part in the fundraiser because she didn’t want to be complicit in the genocide of Palestinians.
However, when she returned to work after the fundraiser, she said she still wanted to show solidarity with Palestinians and decided to wear a pin bearing the Palestinian flag on her shirt.
A few days later, the company came out with a new policy that banned any pin or patch unrelated to the store on their uniforms.
“I wore the pin anyway in defiance of the policy and I was sent home that day,” Hamilton says.
When she returned to work, she decided she needed the job and abided by the policy. But when one of her colleagues, Noah Wood, refused to take off his pin, and she wouldn’t discipline him as his manager, she was fired. And so was he.
“I would never, as a manager censor someone I work with for showing their heartfelt belief in human rights,” Hamilton said.
Wood, who had already resigned from his job on account of the suppression of Palestinian advocacy at the restaurant, was serving his notice period at the time when he was told to stay home.
He told MEE that it appears a customer complaint may have led to his dismissal.
“We’ve had LGBTQ flags up in the store. They might still be up. And one of the other locations had Black Lives Matter signage, so it wasn’t as if it was an entirely politically neutral work environment,” Wood said.
“You must remember Sophie and I didn’t say anything. We didn’t argue with customers. We weren’t posting online. We were just wearing Palestine patches and pins and this seemed to make a customer uncomfortable, and this was enough for termination,” he added.
Goldie and its parent company, CookNSolo, did not immediately reply to MEE’s request for comment.
Activists say they remain appalled by the smear campaigns pitted against Palestinians on a daily basis. The rush to defend a business working with the Israeli army under the mask of an antisemitic attack was in line with the higher echelons of the American state to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, they say.
With the devastation in Gaza spiralling and the death toll ever increasing – now upwards of 16,000 Palestinians – organisers say the rapid resort to smear those who dare to raise the plight of Palestinians was the surest sign that officials had run out of excuses to justify the support of Israel.
Activists say the flurry of support for the Israeli-owned business also showed the close ties between the US political establishment and Israel-aligned businesses.
“The hypocrisy of our elected officials is despicable. Within a couple hours of our protest, Pennsylvania’s Governor Josh Shapiro and others ran to Twitter to accuse us of antisemitism with absolutely no context and no facts,” Abulhalwa, with the Philly Palestine Coalition, said.
“No one from their offices reached out to us to ‘investigate’,” Abulhalwa added.
Organisers said US politicians were constantly attempting to portray pro-Palestinian protesters as unhinged or violent when it was the US state that was supporting genocide in Gaza and it was Palestinians in the US who have either been killed or physically attacked.
In its report about the call made by Emhoff, the US vice president’s husband, to Solomonov, the owner of Goldie, NBC News reported that the duo spoke about “how food was actually supposed to bring people together rather than be a source of division”.
Likewise, Pennsylvania’s Governor Shapiro, who was among the first to condemn the protests outside Goldie, baked bread with its owner, Solomonov, as recently as September.
“Being an Israeli ambassador is a big part of Solomonov’s brand,” Leila, a Jewish-American who took part in the protest outside Goldie on Sunday, said.
Leila, who offered only her first name to MEE, said the suggestion that any part of the action outside the restaurant may have been construed as antisemitic was simply absurd.
June, the former employee at Goldie, who had watched the protest from inside the store itself, said the charge of antisemitism was divorced from reality.
“They didn’t come to the restaurant simply because it was Jewish-owned. If that was the case, they would’ve gone to hundreds of restaurants across the city,” June said.
Likewise, Abuhalwa said the smears against Palestinians were once more exposing a double standard toward Palestinian life.
“Palestinian protesters being held at gunpoint by a racist, Islamophobe is a hate crime. Palestinians being shot for wearing keffiyehs is a hate crime. A grown man stabbing a little boy for being Muslim is a hate crime. Using your First Amendment rights and peacefully protesting is not a hate crime.
“They accused us of targeting Goldie because it’s Jewish-owned, which is far from the truth. Solomonov is not being targeted due to his religious beliefs, but rather his ties to a violent apartheid state that is currently enacting a genocide,” Abuhalwa added.
Meanwhile, June, the 24-year-old who lost his job at Goldie for supporting the protesters, says he has no regrets.
“If I could educate more people on how this company feels about Palestinians being killed, I’d gladly do it in a heartbeat,” June said.
“I will always advocate and support anyone who advocates for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation of Palestine,” they added.