Arab-Jewish Restaurant Refuses to Stop Serving Its Coexistence Recipe

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Maxim co-owner Tony Mattar. "If I had no hope, I would have closed this place down long ago," he says.Credit: Rami Shllush

HAIFA – It’s lunchtime at Maxim and what would normally be a packed restaurant bustling with the chatter of customers and orders for falafel and kebabs is half empty.

The wave of violence that is prompting many Israelis to stay home has hit this Haifa eatery hard. But Maxim is not just another hummus joint. This jointly owned Arab-Jewish restaurant is a rarity in the Israeli business landscape and is currently marking two important anniversaries – one happy, the other tragic.

It was 50 years ago this month that the Arab-Christian Mattar family and the Jewish Tayar family opened this folksy, Middle Eastern restaurant at the entrance to the northern Israeli city. The two families, both from Haifa and with roots in Lebanon, have remained in partnership ever since, through good and bad times.

It was 12 years ago this month, during the height of the second intifada, that one of the worst terror attacks in Israeli history was carried out at this very restaurant. A female suicide bomber from the West Bank city of Jenin walked in on Saturday October 4, when it was jam-packed with lunchtime customers, and blew herself up. Twenty-one Israelis were killed in that attack, including five restaurant employees, and another 100 people were wounded.

For many Israelis since then, Maxim has come to symbolize the best and worst in Arab-Jewish relations.

When the second generation of owners looks around today at the latest wave of violence engulfing the country, they are sad, yet simultaneously optimistic.

“If I had no hope, I would have closed this place down long ago,” says Tony Mattar, son of the original Arab partner. And it’s not like he and his partners never considered calling it quits. “A month after the terror attack, we were really tempted not to reopen,” he recalls. “But we understood that if we put our hands up in defeat, that would be a victory for hate and evil. We have long been regarded as a symbol of Jewish-Arab coexistence in this country, and we did not want that symbol destroyed.”

Business is suffering these days at Maxim, as it is elsewhere in the country, with most Israelis preferring not to venture out to restaurants if they don’t have to. “I brought my mother here the other day,” says Orly Nir, daughter of the original Jewish partner, “and she had tears in her eyes when she saw how empty the place was. But Tony reassured us that we shouldn’t take it personally, and that people simply have no desire to go out these days.”

Lunch hour is usually the busiest time of day at Maxim, but today, more than half the tables at this restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea are empty. Of the smattering of diners, most are sitting alone at tables, either reading the newspaper or catching up on emails while they eat. The only full table has a group of American visitors seated around it with their Israeli host, discussing why Jews and Arabs don’t live in the same neighborhoods in Haifa.

Longtime customers Avi Artzi and his wife, Tali, are at another table. “I’ve known the owners here for 40 years,” says Avi. “I don’t even need a menu when I come; they know exactly what to serve me.”

He points to four waiters standing at the entrance swiping away at their cellphones. “On normal days, you would never see that at this time of day. They would be way too busy to be paying attention to their phones,” he notes.

At least two of the dozen or so diners in the restaurant here today were also present on that horrific day back in 2003 – evidence that loyal customers at Maxim are a breed of their own.

“I practically live here,” says Gilad Barzilay, a local insurance agent. “I left the restaurant 10 minutes before the terrorist blew herself up, and I rushed back 10 minutes after to help evacuate the wounded. It was the worst day of my life.”

It was pure chance that Yossi Moshkovitz, a construction worker enjoying lunch on his own today, found himself outside Maxim when all hell broke loose. “I had just parked my car outside, and someone stopped me to ask me something – so it was just a matter of luck that I was not inside when she detonated herself,” he reflects.

Long before the Mattar and Tayar families forged their business partnership, they had been good friends and neighbors. “Many people warned us at the time that it wouldn’t work out,” recalls Tony, “but we proved them wrong.”

To this day, the two families celebrate each other’s religious holidays and life-cycle events together, and often take joint vacations. “Usually, the women from both our families meet about once a week,” says Nir, a 63-year-old retired school principal, “but at times like this, when things are so bad in the country, we feel the need to get together more often so we’ve been seeing each other every day. It helps us get through crises like these.”

As a sign of the times, a security guard has been stationed outside the restaurant full-time over the past week.

Tony believes the biggest problem facing Jews and Arabs today is lack of leadership. “They’re all afraid of making decisions – both the Jewish leaders and the Arab leaders,” he says. “Ever since this latest round of violence erupted, all we’ve heard from our leaders is how we need to defend ourselves. Not a word about how we resolve this situation.”

Ibrahim Abu-Abbas, another loyal customer who says he’s been coming to Maxim since it opened, agrees. “Our problem is Bibi,” he says, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “What he needs to do is sit down at the negotiating table and make peace once and for all.”

Nir says that, politically, her family members lean more to the center and would never define themselves as leftists. However, since the war in Gaza last summer, she has become involved in the new movement Women Wage Peace. “I know it doesn’t sound logical, but I’m actually optimistic about the future here,” she says. “When I read my Facebook feed these days, I see more and more initiatives all over the country to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence. There were times when initiatives like these would come mainly from the Jews. But now I’m seeing more and more Arabs involved, and that gives me hope.”

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