As the conflict in Israel-Gaza nears its fourth month, Abdul Elenani and his wife Ayat Masoud, co-owners of the Palestinian restaurant Ayat, decided to host a Shabbat dinner to spark dialogue and forge ties with the local Jewish community.
The restaurant, which held the dinner on Jan. 26 at its Ditmas Park location, has come under fire in recent weeks, stemming from its criticism of the Israeli government. The owners have been subject to several harsh articles in the tabloid press — accusing them of antisemitism — prompting them to extend an olive branch to Jewish residents and organizing the Shabbat dinner.
Its menu has been condemned for including phrases such as “down with the occupation” written in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Additionally, the menu includes the phrase “From the River to the Sea” — a slogan which for some is a rallying call for the liberation of Palestine but for pro-Israel groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, is viewed as antisemitic, a call for the eradication of Israel.
The menu — and the fact that Elenani and his family are outspoken critics of Israel and its supporters — led to some calling for the restaurant to be shuttered. The hostility led to the idea to host a Shabbat dinner.
“After seeing all the negative articles that came out, I thought it was a good idea to host the Shabbat at this location,” Elenani said in an interview with Brooklyn Paper. “Actually, a lot of Jewish community came and supported [us] and they wanted to express their thankfulness and gratitude toward what we do and what we stand for in mentioning the occupation of Palestine. So, I thought it was a good gesture to show them my thankfulness with a Shabbat dinner.”
Elenani and his wife announced their plans to hold the Shabbat dinner on the restaurant’s Instagram, and word quickly spread. They promised a heartfelt dinner and “an atmosphere of warmth, unity and unwavering acceptance.”
Their message was heard, with reportedly more than 1,300 people attending over the course of the evening. Both traditional Palestinian and Kosher foods were served free of cost to about 200 seated guests with a tent set up outside for the occasion.
Ayat, which boasts five locations in New York City and one in Pennsylvania, has been subject to criticism for some time. Following the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, Ayat’s restaurant reviews were flooded with negative comments — many of which were from people who hadn’t appeared to have visited the restaurant before.
“Your menu calls for the genocide [sic] of Jews, horrible that you think this is funny?” one comment reads.
“Well, there are many restaurants no need for this poisonous one,” another says. But despite the trolling — and, at at times, death threats — Elenani and Masoud forged on, intent on providing residents with Palestinian food.
The dream to host a Shabbat dinner had been brewing in Elenani’s mind for quite some time, even before the most recent crisis in Gaza began.
“It’s been a thing of mine, to have Jews and Muslims under one roof, together through the food,” Elenani said. “So I think during these times while all this negativity is happening and killing of innocent people are happening, I thought it was really the perfect time to really show some positivity in the face of negativity of bringing people together and specifically Jews and Muslims.”
During the time since the Oct. 7 attack in Israel and its subsequent airstrikes on Gaza, many Muslim Americans have felt an increase of Islamophobia, reminiscent of the post 9/11 era. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported 1,283 complaints of Islamophobia or anti-Arab bias across the nation in the month following the Hamas attack.
The Jewish community has also suffered hateful attacks, with the Anti-Defamation League reporting 312 antisemitic attacks in the US from Oct. 7 through Oct. 23. The prejudice and violence effecting the two communities also inspired Elenani to host the Shabbat dinner.
“I’m only focused on showing the community that Palestinians or Muslims or Arabs are not what the media has been saying about them for God knows how many years trying to taint their image in any way possible,” explained Elenani. “So I think this was a good gesture to do.”
In order to accommodate the vast number of guests, Ayat served numerous traditional dishes like lamb mansaf and layered maklouba but also enlisted the help of caterers LEV — after Ayat was turned down by numerous other Jewish businesses for the event — to provide Kosher meals as well as the challah and wine required for the Shabbat service.
The service itself, led by Sephardic Maghrebi Jewish spiritual leader Laura Elkeslassy, was attended by dozens of worshipers of multiple faiths who were excited not only to support the restaurant, but to connect with other community members.
“It was a beautiful way to come support the restaurant and have services and build more community around the Palestinian movement as well as support my own Mizrahi community,” said one woman attending the event. “I’m really excited about the service because there will be singing, and the food is really delicious.”
Another guest, who had heard of the event through the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace — which provided volunteers at the event — also expressed her excitement.
“I’m not Jewish or Arab, I came with my friend who works with this group, and I’m really curious about how many people will show up because they really invited the whole community,” said the guest, who asked not to be named. “I have a lot of love for the restaurant and everything that they do for the Palestinian community and the Arab community in New York City, so I really came just to show my love and support.”
Elected officials like New York City Comptroller Brad Lander and Council Member Shahana Hanif also stopped by.
“Shabbat dinner at Ayat last night was genuinely one of the most beautiful (and delicious) events in NYC in a long time — and a model of the peaceful co-existence we so urgently need,” Lander later said on Instagram. “Ayat owners Abdul Elenani & Ayat Masoud faced so much hate and even death-threats as they opened the new branch of Ayat on Cortelyou Road. But they responded with love, offering a free Shabbat meal to hundreds of Jewish neighbors and other guests. Abdul is a vocal opponent of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and a critic of this awful war, but he has also been clear over & over that he wants peaceful co-existence & equality for Palestinians and Israelis. Full belly, fuller heart.”
Other neighbors were perhaps not as excited about the event, and a couple of hecklers stopped along the sidewalk to attempt to gatecrash the service and film the Shabbat service without permission.
However, the overwhelming majority of guests, volunteers and wandering pedestrians seemed to support the joint Palestinian and Jewish Shabbat dinner event, with one passerby remarking that if he had known about the event ahead of time, he would have brought his whole family to attend.
The goal for the evening was perhaps not as loftily optimistic as establishing long standing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather to start and establish an ongoing dialogue between different people from different places, faiths and ideologies.
“Honestly, I want there to be some disagreements,” said Elenani before the event began. “I’m just excited to see Jews and Muslims just talking peacefully and I want them to have their disagreements, but respectfully. The key is to find that line of respect between you and the other person.”
Despite the success of the dinner and service itself, social media again proved difficult to navigate, with some accusing Elenani and his family of changing their values to support Israel.
“Read the room,” commented one Instagram user. “This is so embarrassing. Hosting dinners for Zionists while your own people are being killed. Shame.”
“Why is it so important for Ayat to seek solidarity in the middle of a genocide?” another user said. “This isn’t ending the massacres of our people in Gaza.”
Elenani responded by saying that he and his family would continue to be critical of the Israeli government and its supporters. However, he welcomed everyone to dine at any of Ayat’s locations.
“The Shabbat dinner event that was hosted on Jan. 26 was purely done for the public and for our community and the Jewish community,” Elenani said on Instagram. “99.9% of the people that came to the dinner were pro Palestinians, anti-Zionists, and people that purely stood up for the cause of Palestine. It is easy to host a dinner for the Palestinian people only, that’s a given. But it’s not easy to show appreciation to the Jewish community (NOT ZIONIST) for standing with us during the struggle.”