Since Ayat opened its door in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the restaurant has been proudly Palestinian.
Inside its cozy storefront, Palestinian flags flank a glass case filled with grape leaves, fried eggplant and beef pies. It is a place to celebrate Palestinian culture — “something beautiful to share with others,” said Ayat Masoud, who owns the restaurant with her husband.
And in one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods, where Arabic signs announce businesses, and people of many faiths and ethnicities work, shop and live side-by-side, a sizable portion of Ayat’s customers are Jewish.
“I appreciate people coming here to eat good food and find peace,” said Ms. Masoud, who welcomes all.
Esther Smith, who is Jewish, stopped in for a quick bite this week with her husband. “It’s kind of ironic that we chose this place,” said Ms. Smith, 47. “It’s a good reminder that we really have to separate the politics from the people.”
But the war in Israel is testing the ties that bind Bay Ridge, and setting aside decades of complex and painful politics is not so simple. At Ayat, a mural overlooking the room shows Palestinian children imprisoned underneath the golden dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem, guarded by Israeli soldiers.
After the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Ayat was suddenly flooded with dozens of one-star reviews online.
The restaurant, with its mural depicting Palestinian children imprisoned in Jerusalem, has drawn criticism since it opened.Credit…Ahmed Gaber for The New York Times
“This neighborhood knows how to be one because I think everyone feels like we’re all New Yorkers,” Ms. Smith said. “But I also think tensions could flare at any moment because it’s that emotional. It feels personal for so many people.”
On Thursday afternoon, a soothing love song in Arabic was playing inside the restaurant as two teenage girls in black hijabs held up their cellphones to take video of the mural to post on Instagram.
Abdurahman Sodikov, 20, a DoorDash deliveryman who is Muslim, parked his e-bike by the door and waited beside a Palestinian flag to pick up an order. “I’m excited to see the flag because I’m so upset about what’s happening,” he said.
Ayat is built on Ms. Masoud’s love of cooking. Ms. Masoud, 33, a lawyer, and her husband, Abdul Elenani, 30, opened the restaurant in a former tanning salon in October 2020.
Mr. Elenani, an entrepreneur whose businesses include a chain of coffee shops, said they wanted “to spread the message about what’s happening in Palestine through food and culture.”
Bay Ridge seemed a good place to do that. Ms. Masoud, the youngest of nine children of Palestinian immigrants from Jerusalem, and her husband both grew up in the neighborhood. Though it is still largely Italian and Irish, about 11 percent of its 86,000 residents are of Arab descent, including Egyptian and Lebanese as well as Palestinian, according to a census analysis by Social Explorer, a research company.
Ms. Masoud’s late father, Mahmoud Masoud, had opened a halal supermarket, Balady, in 2003 for the growing Muslim community in Bay Ridge and around the city. No pork or alcohol is sold, to comply with the Islamic faith.
Ms. Masoud’s cooking at Ayat quickly garnered rave reviews, but there was considerably less enthusiasm for a self-declared “Palestinian restaurant.” Mr. Elenani said that some of their customers asked: “Why do you bring politics into food?”
Since Ayat opened, with its Palestinian flags and mural, the couple has been accused of antisemitism and of spreading hate and called terrorists on Instagram and other social media. They lost a few Jewish friends, who knew Ms. Masoud was Palestinian but became uncomfortable with their restaurant.
The outbreak of violence this week has made their efforts more important than ever, the couple said.
Many Palestinians, and their supporters, have expressed frustration over what they see as a double standard: an outpouring of support for Israel while the decades-long suffering of Palestinians has been largely ignored by much of the non-Muslim world.
Zein Rimawi, 69, a Palestinian immigrant in Bay Ridge who is involved with various Arab American civic organizations, said that it was only a matter of time before Palestinians lashed out.
“You put the cat in a corner and start hitting the cat, what will happen?” said Mr. Rimawi. “This is what happened in Gaza.”
Sitting outside Ayat on a recent evening, Mr. Elenani and Ms. Masoud, who are expecting their first child, a girl, emphasized that they do not condone violence against anyone.
Mr. Elenani and Ms. Masoud condemned both the Hamas and Israeli violence, saying that they had been dismayed by the terror and death that they have seen on both sides. “At the end of the day, it’s human life,” he said.
After Ayat started racking up bad reviews, Mr. Elenani reported them and managed to get most of them taken down. Some reviews urged people to stay away from a Palestinian business. It did not work: There has been no drop-off in customers.
Ayat feeds between 100 and 150 customers a day during the week, and double that on weekends when the line spills out the door and customers eat on the curb.
Ahmad Mounib, 46, an Egyptian immigrant, did not notice the Palestinian flags when he ordered the beef shawarma and French fries on a recent afternoon.
Mr. Mounib, who is Muslim, said the conflict was “a total mess” and that his concern was the safety of the women, children and older people caught up in the violence. “It’s about humanity. That’s all I care about,” he said.
Leta Hirschmann-Levy, 37, who is Jewish and opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestine, said she wanted to show her support for Palestine and Palestinians.
“What’s happening now in Israel is not about religion,” she said after finishing her lunch at the restaurant. “This is about land rights and freedom and self-determination.”
Over at another table, Ms. Smith said she believed that Israel had a right to a homeland.
“I think Hamas is a terrorist organization,” she said. “But I think that the suffering on both sides is absolutely tragic, and I hope there is a resolution soon because too many people are dying.”