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Anger unleashed by the Israel-Hamas war has hit small businesses in the U.S.


Anger, frustration and fear unleashed by the Israel-Hamas war is being felt throughout communities here in the U.S. For some small businesses, that has led to wild ups and downs unlike anything they've experienced. NPR's Andrea Hsu has the story of one such business in Washington, D.C.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: After the Hamas attack on October 7, and after Israel began bombing Gaza in response, Riki Alkoby started noticing a significant drop in business.

RIKI ALKOBY: Almost 50%.

HSU: That was that one location of her Mediterranean restaurant, Oh Mama Grill. She chalked it up to people just not being in the mood.

ALKOBY: And I said maybe just people, you know, don't want to go out. They don't want to eat outside. It is sad.

HSU: But then a customer came in and showed one of her employees a WhatsApp post calling for a boycott of her business. A couple hours later, another customer did the same, and Alkoby got a look at the post. She says it named her and her husband, identifying them in big letters as Israelis, which is true. And then in smaller print it said...

ALKOBY: Don't go to them. They are supporting terrorists.

HSU: NPR did not see that post, but there is an Instagram post from a year ago which has Oh Mama Grill on a list of Israeli restaurants to avoid in the Washington, D.C., area. The post says, for too long, Palestinian food has been appropriated by Israeli chefs, and it goes on to suggest that that's contributing to the erasure of Palestinian culture. It's an argument that a group of prominent chefs and food writers has also signed on to in recent weeks. Alkoby, who grew up eating shawarma and falafel in Israel, says she actually had a lot of Arab customers because the owner of the last restaurant to inhabit her space was Arab.

ALKOBY: So a lot of his customers came and is like, oh, we were so sad that he closed. Let's try your food. And they like it, so they come.

HSU: Oh Mama Grill doesn't have any signage that identifies the place as Israeli. No flags, no posters of hostages. The walls are decorated with three large hands, or hamsa, a symbol of protection.

ALKOBY: It's very Arab, you know? It's like my mother is Tunisian. My father is from Morocco. We believe in hamsa, you know?

HSU: But after being targeted for a boycott, Alkoby felt fearful like never before. She worried about her employees. She thought about getting a gun.

ALKOBY: I went to do a license for a weapon just after, because I was scared, to be honest.

HSU: A couple of weeks later, a friend called, and Alkoby told her about the boycott. That friend's sister, who lives in D.C., posted about it on a Facebook group for young, Jewish professionals and students. And from there, it spread.

ALKOBY: People share and share and share in all kind of group, all over Facebook. People come and support, and we were booming. Really busy. And the love - and people wrote us emails and call us and it was like I wasn't afraid anymore. I got the license. I didn't even buy the gun.

HSU: Traffic peaked the week of the march for Israel in D.C., and now finally, Alkoby says, things are calming down.

ALKOBY: I'm kind of naive. I want to believe that everything is, like, going to be back to normal.

HSU: And that people will decide whether to come to her restaurant based on her food, not on where she was born. But with the conflict in Gaza ongoing, divisions may yet deepen. And with food wrapped up in politics, restaurants like hers may continue to experience that divide.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVIGNON'S "DUALITIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.