Few in the food world want to touch the Palestine issue. Here’s why one S.F. bar is speaking up

Two weeks ago, when the current Israel-Palestine crisis began unfolding in the Gaza Strip, I noticed that a lot more people—especially non-activists—were talking about it in public. But in my part of the woods, the food world, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories hasn’t really been a topic of conversation, though diners have long-embraced the region’s cuisines at Israeli restaurants like Philadelphia’s Zahav and Oren’s Hummus in San Francisco. If there was any conversation about Palestine, it was largely driven by Arab American women like chef-activists Amanny Ahmad and Reem Assil.

More commonly, we in food whisper about the issue similarly to how London chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi bring it up in their popular cookbook, “Jerusalem”: While they allude to the ugliness of the long-running military occupation in their introduction, the text tends toward a laissez-faire attitude toward it. Conflicts over the ownership of land, culture and food are futile, they write, “because it doesn’t really matter,” and worrying about it would spoil the pleasurable act of eating. It’s a very political answer, seemingly designed to not piss anybody off. But then again, why are we asking restaurant folks to say anything about this?

“People listen to chefs,” said Preeti Mistry, a local chef and podcast host who is also known for speaking up about issues as broad as whiteness in fine dining culture and prejudice in food media. Recently, they began sounding the alarm on COVID’s brutal impact on India, using a fundraiser at Windsor restaurant PizzaLeah to raise money and awareness. “Whether you admit it or not,” Mistry said, “you’re a leader and people look to you.”

From left: Habibi Bar owners Andrew Paul Nelson, Essam Kardosh and Bahman Safari, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. The pop-up is located at Bacchus Wine Bar.

From left: Habibi Bar owners Andrew Paul Nelson, Essam Kardosh and Bahman Safari, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. The pop-up is located at Bacchus Wine Bar.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

I asked the same question of Essam Kardosh, Bahman Safari and Andrew Paul Nelson, the founders of Habibi, a Russian Hill wine bar. On May 12, the team published an Instagram post that encouraged their followers to donate money for Palestinian refugee aid and learn more about “the human rights atrocities committed by the apartheid state of Israel.” At that point, Habibi was one of a tiny handful of local establishments that had said anything publicly about Palestine.

For Habibi’s founders, two of whom are of Middle Eastern descent, speaking out is a clear way to signal that their bar is about more than just selling wine: It’s about being a community space for people who usually feel excluded from the wine world.

Muddled political messaging is not an option for them, having experienced it firsthand. Kardosh said that during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, he and his colleagues saw how the businesses they worked for struggled with maintaining neutrality out of fear of alienating customers and generating backlash. It was an attitude that they pledged not to replicate at Habibi, a place where they would be the ones calling the shots. “We didn’t want to perpetuate that cycle of silence,” he said. And to that point, their May 12 Instagram point specifically included the sentiment that “silence is violence.”

Safari, a gay Iranian American who says he has often felt like an outsider at predominantly white queer-owned establishments in the Bay Area, emphasized that inclusivity should be more than just ambience: It also means “speaking up when there are injustices being enacted.”

According to Nelson, many non-Black-owned businesses felt pressured to make statements about racial injustice last year, sometimes by employees and customers alike. “That pressure was good for this country and was good for the world—to finally begin to have a conversation about racial injustice and police brutality.”

And if you think talking about the Black Lives Matter movement in mixed company is tough, bringing up Palestine is practically impossible. Palestinian Americans are prolific in the Bay Area food scene, but several have said that talking about these issues in public forums historically sparked massive amounts of backlash and harassment, including accusations of anti-Semitism. It’s hard for members of the Jewish diaspora to talk about too, as writer Marisa Kabas articulated in a recent piece for Rolling Stone. She wrote, “because the conflict has so often been boiled down to a binary—you either support Israel or you support its destruction—for many of us it felt like a betrayal to even consider the other side.” Yet Kabas has also observed more young American Jews being vocal about their opposition to the occupation.

So far, few Bay Area establishments have said anything at all, but not because the people behind them haven’t been thinking about this.