Listen: Defending Palestinian culture at Oakland’s Reem’s

Activists in the Bay Area are defending a local bakery and cafe against escalating attacks over a mural honoring Palestinian American community leader Rasmea Odeh.

Reem’s, which opened in Oakland’s Fruitvale district earlier this year, serves Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese sweets and baked goods, and has been collecting positive reviews from Bay Area food writers.

“I wasn’t totally naive about what it all means to run a business as an unapologetic Arab or Palestinian for that matter, in a hyper-capitalist economy where I’m trying to feed my community and pay my workers well,” owner Reem Assil told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

“So I think that despite the fact that I was on this sort of uphill battle, I think the thing that’s been the most amazing piece of learning for me is that your community really holds you,” she said.

Mural of Rasmea Odeh on the wall of Reem’s, a bakery and cafe in Oakland. 

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Over the summer, members of the Israeli government-funded anti-Palestinian group StandWithUs began inciting against the cafe while a story smearing Reem’s was published in Breitbart, the right-wing propaganda website run by Steve Bannon, the former advisor to Donald Trump.

Other right-wing, anti-Palestinian sites published similar attack stories while individuals began trolling Reem’s public Facebook and Yelp pages with attacks and bad reviews, hoping to permanently damage the cafe’s reputation and discourage customers from supporting the business.

Assil organized a community support network and “planned for the worst,” she told The Electronic Intifada Podcast. “And luckily it hasn’t gotten to the worst, but we’re living in a Trump era where you just don’t know, even here in the Bay Area.”

In early July, Assil added, right-wing protesters “showed up to my restaurant, tried to disrupt business, tried to block our doors [and] attacked several of our customers. It was a wake-up call for me and my staff – that we need to really be coordinated and that we’re protecting one another, because nobody else was protecting us.”

“We’re not afraid”

Commissioning a mural of Rasmea Odeh on the wall of her restaurant, Assil said, sends a message “to say we’re not afraid in a time where fear is the biggest component in how the state is trying to control us.”

Odeh is the associate director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago, where she founded the women’s committee that is credited with organizing and empowering hundreds of immigrant women.

In 2013, Odeh was indicted by the US government for failing to disclose in immigration applications her conviction and imprisonment by an Israeli military court in 1969 for alleged involvement in two bombings in Jerusalem, which killed two civilians.

While imprisoned by Israel, Odeh was subjected to prolonged psychological and sexual torture and rape by Israeli soldiers, which Israel used to force her to sign a confession. Odeh has always maintained her innocence.

When Odeh was indicted for immigration fraud by the United States, she again maintained her innocence, taking her case to trial instead of accepting the plea deal that was offered at the time.

She was convicted in a trial in November 2014, but won an appeal in February 2016. She was prepared to go to a new trial to argue that she had failed to disclose her conviction and imprisonment by the Israeli military on her immigration forms due to her post-traumatic stress disorder.

But during the preliminary phase of the new trial, federal prosecutors expanded their indictment against Odeh, adding charges that she was a member of a “terrorist” group – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular, Marxist-Leninist political and resistance organization.

According to her lawyers, Odeh concluded she had no chance of a fair trial in the present atmosphere and she opted for a plea deal.

Stripped of her US citizenship, Odeh now faces deportation.

Larger pattern

The kind of harassment Reem’s has been facing fits within a larger pattern of ongoing attacks by anti-Palestinian groups in the Bay Area.

An Israel advocacy group campaigned to thwart the implementation of an Arabic language program in San Francisco public schools in 2015 over the district’s partnership with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, an explicitly anti-Zionist community organization. That campaign ended in failure, but Israel advocates continue to target the group’s ability to work with Arabic-speaking youth in San Francisco.

Israel advocates have been involved in pressuring Bay Area universities to suppress speech critical of Israel on campuses, and have targeted students and members of faculty who support Palestinian rights.

In 2011, Israel-aligned organizations pressured an Oakland children’s museum to cancel an exhibition of drawings made by Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip.

Ten years ago, artists were forced to remove images from their public mural depicting Palestinians breaking through Israel’s illegal wall in the occupied West Bank.

The San Francisco Arts Commission, which sponsored the mural, was under sustained pressure from influential Zionist groups, including the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League.

Showing overt pride in Palestinian culture through her food and her decision to put a mural of Rasmea Odeh in her restaurant “makes her a target for Zionist groups who want to continuously come to the restaurant to try to disrupt business, to smear her, but also to alienate us every time we are actually building power in the Bay Area,” Lara Kiswani of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Numerous community organizations have come together as a response network to defend Reem’s, including Jewish and Palestinian social justice groups and Filipino, Chicano and Black-led anti-racism organizations.

“People refusing to allow Zionists to have an uncontested presence in front of this establishment … to me, that’s been really profound,” writer Zoé Samudzi told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Reem Assil explained that not giving into the fear tactics is not just an act of resistance but “a silver lining to all of this – that despite the odds, we’re still speaking our truth and we’re still being resilient in the way I imagined Reem’s to be.”

Listen to the podcast via the media player above.

Music and production assistance by Sharif Zakout

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Comments

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There was an article on Berkeleyside a couple of weeks agoabout Reem's--attacking the Rasmea Odeh mural. When I tried to respond, I was piled on by Zionists calling me a liar. (I have better things to do than argue w/ people like that.) I've also gotten banned from Why Evolution is True for calling out Jerry Coyne, who runs the site, for the fact that he never seems to miss an opportunity to describe Arabs (esp Palestinians) as violent, anti-Semitic, and let's not forget crazy. (His article on Steven Saitia a few days ago, e.g.) Thanks to all of you at EI for doing what you do. I read your site every day. As a scientist, I've got a really good bullshit detector--and you don't fall into the category of bullshit.

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Just took a look at that article. The comments section was absolutely awash in Zionist diatribes. They really came out in force to denounce Rasmea Odeh. And they didn't stop there. Various contributors reviled Palestinian efforts to secure basic rights, denied the historical reality of ethnic cleansing, pointed out how tiny and harmless Israel really is, on and on. The response was so uniform and the arguments so familiar that the impression of a coordinated rally was inescapable. You'd think that the Bay Area is dotted with Israeli settlements- which to my knowledge, it's not. Anyway, well done for speaking up in such a storm of abuse.

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In the 10 years that she spent as a community and labor organizer, Reem Assil faced numerous difficulties and fought hard to advocate for the people she loved and represented, but nothing has been as challenging for the young activist as her most recent endeavor for social change — launching an Arab street-corner bakery.

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AS an Oaklander, I go there as often as possible, and wrote a Yelp review that got published in support of Reem's.

I've been an 'activist' for decades, but as a non-Jew I'm shut out of any organizations currently

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).