It is a familiar scenario. Somewhere in a Bay Area community space, a Palestinian voice rises and is heard. That voice defies a rigidly enforced popular narrative that casts the mighty state of Israel as the victim and demonizes those it has dispossessed. Gatekeeper pro-Israel organizations, purporting to represent the entire Jewish community, spring into outraged action and whip up Islamophobic hysteria that terrorism and antisemitism lurk where Palestinian political expression is allowed.
This scenario is playing out today, as the right-wing, pro-Israel brigade vilifies Reem’s California, an Arab street-corner bakery in the Fruitvale Plaza, as promoting terrorism and hatred of Jews, and seeks to drive it out of business by holding raucous demonstrations in front of the restaurant and swamping Yelp and other social media with false negative reviews. Reem’s, which opened in May, has been acclaimed for its authentic Arab cuisine and welcoming community space, and for creating living-wage jobs, including for those with barriers to employment. But it is being targeted for destruction because on its walls, in addition to colorfully emblazoned Arabic script, there is a mural of Rasmea Odeh, a revered feminist leader and longtime organizer in the Palestinian and Arab-American community, who has survived decades of Israeli persecution.
In 1969, when she was a college student, Odeh was arrested by Israel authorities along with hundreds of other Palestinians, and convicted of participating in bombings that killed two Jewish-Israeli civilians. She was given a life sentence but was released in 1979 in a prisoner exchange. The year of her release she testified before a United Nations human rights committee about the brutal torture and sexual assault that were used to force her to sign a false confession.
Odeh’s testimony was echoed that same year by U.S. State Department reports indicating that “the use of brutality in the interrogation of Arab political prisoners is a systematic practice.”
In the occupied territories the occupying army is the jailor, the prosecutor and the judge of Palestinian civilians forced to live under martial law. Under these circumstances, what kind of justice can there be?
Odeh’s arrest, detention, “confession,” and conviction are inseparable from this broader context. In the 50 years of Israeli occupation, some 750,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israeli security forces–- constituting approximately 20% of the total Palestinian population. And the rate of conviction for Palestinians in Israel’s military courts is a staggering 99.74%, according to the military’s own statistics.
Today’s campaign against Reem’s is one in a long line of attacks by pro-Israel organizations against Palestinian expression in the Bay Area. It happened when these organizations forced changes to the Palestinian segment of a public mural created by Mission District youth to celebrate the bringing down of walls confining people of color around the world. Images of Palestinian liberation were, they claimed “exceedingly threatening to the Jewish community…” It happened when they sought to have the city of Berkeley defund the Berkeley Art Center because it held an exhibit of Palestinian art that included images of anguish and resistance under occupation; it happened when they demanded removal of “inflammatory” symbols of the Palestinian right of return in the San Francisco State University Edward Said mural; and it happened when they pressured the Oakland Museum of Children’s Arts to cancel an exhibit of artwork by children of Gaza depicting the Israeli assault in 2009.
Against this background, the local community, as well as social justice organizations, have rallied to Reem’s side. On several recent occasions, including two Saturdays, a handful of people raucously demonstrated outside the bakery, calling on the public to boycott it. Their efforts were countered by dozens of community members, neighbors, and activists who showed up to keep the entrances to the bakery open and everyone safe. Several passersby joined them, outraged by the racist tirades.
Each time, despite the demonstrators’ attempt at disruption, Reem’s was packed with customers, including many social justice activists and community members. After one Saturday protest, as the sun streamed through the windows and the fragrance of freshly baked man’oushe filled the air, members of Jewish Voice for Peace processed the day’s events and discussed how we could most effectively support Reem’s. We are committed to justice for all, and we take the threat of antisemitism very seriously. That is why we denounce attempts to use that term to incite and justify Islamophobia and racism. We hope others in the progressive Bay Area community will join us in denouncing these attacks and supporting Reem’s Arab street-corner bakery.
A version of this article was originally published at Berkeleyside.