A Palestinian restaurant chain owner who took flak for his inflammatory “river to the sea” menu header is hosting a free sabbath dinner on Friday in part to thank his Jewish customers for their support and to foster community.
Restaurateur Abdul Elenani, 31, owns Ayat, a chain of popular Palestinian eateries named after his wife, a 34-year-old lawyer, and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants.
The restaurant caused a stir in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel with its “from the river to the sea” fish options on the menu.
The Anti-Defamation League calls the phrase antisemitic because it implicitly calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and the annihilation of Jews.
Elenani, however, insists the phrase has a different interpretation.
“This mantra stands for Palestinians to have equal rights and freedoms in their own country. In no way does this advocate any kind of violence. It signifies peace, and freedom,” he told Side Dish.
The explanation has been added to the new menus at his latest location in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, which will host the free dinner. It will soon appear on menus at other Ayat outposts.
Elenani’s controversial messaging led to him being targeted with death threats and, almost as bad, the popular chain was hit with bad reviews. But he has remained firm in trying to control the narrative.
“You can’t come to me and translate my verse,” he said. “You should ask me and I will give you my translation. I’m not going to change it because you want to change the meaning to feed your story.”
Perhaps surprisingly, he has received strong support from his Jewish customers, he said.
The sabbath dinner is a way for him to show thanks, though he is still working out details like hiring a kosher caterer.
“I’ve always wanted — even before this shabbat dinner concept — to create something that brings Jews and Muslims together under one roof, and there is no better way than through food,” Elenani said.
The Middle East conflict “shouldn’t impact people here in New York. It doesn’t make any sense. It should unite us more and not separate us.”
Elenani, who grew up in Brooklyn, launched the first Ayat restaurant in 2020, during the pandemic. They’re now in the East Village, Ditmas Park, Bay Ridge, Industry City, Staten Island, and Allentown, Pa.
On social media, Elenani and his wife, Ayat Masoud, posted: “In the spirit of togetherness and understanding, we invite all our incredible neighbors, especially our Jewish neighbors, to a heartfelt shabbat dinner at Ayat Restaurant. It’s not just about breaking bread; it’s about breaking barriers, fostering dialogue, and connecting on a human level…Let’s create a space where differences unite us, where conversations flow freely, and where bonds are forged. Together, let’s weave a tapestry of understanding and compassion that strengthens our beloved community.”
Born in New York to Egyptian immigrants, Elenani says the dinner is also a step towards his ultimate restaurant vision of having both Jews and Arabs eating alongside each other.
“The larger concept I want to roll out is a massive warehouse, with a kosher kitchen on one side, a halal kitchen on the other, and communal tables in the middle,” Elenani said. “Everyone would then sit together at the communal tables to discuss life and normal human things that people discuss with each other.”
The concept is “really needed right now,” he said. “Everybody is going against each other, and no one is thinking about bringing people together. Enough with the negativity! I want to bring opposites together and they aren’t even opposite. We all have a lot of things in common. The separations are stupid, because of politics.”
Elenani also works as a building contractor, and owns a farm in central New Jersey. But his passion is the restaurant business. Pre-pandemic, Elenani launched Cocoa Grinder, a chain of coffee shops in Brooklyn, where they roast their own beans.
Elenani and Massoud are also new parents. They have a 2-month-old daughter.
“She changed everything,” Elenani said. “I’m more soft, less tough — living for another person, and taking care of myself so that I can take care of her.”
Having a child, Elenani said, “makes you question life and question yourself more. The first thing I said to myself when I saw her was, ‘Am I a good person?’ How will she judge me? How will the world judge me?”