The string of suicide bombings in crowded public places – bars, restaurants, hotels and markets – was for Israelis the most unforgettable aspect of the second intifada. Many just hear the names of the targets and memories of the devastation come flooding back, along with images of a bar’s armed guards, or the feeling you need to nervously choose your seat at a restaurant or hotel lobby.
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In the two decades since, many of the restaurants and cafes attacked have closed or changed ownership. But others have survived, their owners riding out years of their family business being linked to a national tragedy, persevering until the place returned to full capacity, buoyed by loyal customers.
Over the past week, amidst Israel's second national lockdown, Haaretz revisited three such establishments – Mike’s Place, the Maxim restaurant and the Park Hotel. The owners spoke about the trauma that will never leave, and the challenges of overcoming the physical, psychological and financial aftermath.
And now there’s another key question: how that experience compares to the challenges to their livelihood of today’s coronavirus crisis, while not forgetting the strength they have knowing there can be a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Park Hotel, Netanya
Among the haunting images of the second intifada, the shredded interior of the dining hall at Netanya’s Park Hotel stands out. The room was the site of the deadliest suicide bombing of that era, the 2002 Passover massacre that shocked Israelis, who, like the hotel guests, were about to celebrate a joyous holiday on a late March evening.
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More than 200 guests were set to begin the Passover seder when a Palestinian armed with an explosive-filled suitcase walked through the lobby into the dining hall. The blast killed 30 people and wounded 140; many were members of the same family. The attack – one of 12 that took place that month – was seared into the national memory.
It took years, co-owner Eric Cohen says, for the family that owns and operates the hotel to fully rebuild their business at the modest seaside resort. It took a full year, he says, to bring guests back. Even in recent years, families planning celebrations have hesitated when they realized the venue’s history.
But Cohen, alone in the lobby a week after the second lockdown shut the country’s hotels, doesn’t hesitate when asked what has been more difficult to navigate: that devastating period or the pandemic.
“I think the coronavirus is a much more serious, deeper and long-term crisis than any war or intifada,” he says. “Corona is a much, much harder blow.”
“What we’re going through with corona is on a whole different level. The uncertainty and changes are what's really destructive. Everything is unknown. We can’t plan anything. At first we thought it was going to affect us for a few months. Some thought it would be six months to a year. And now – we just don’t know.”
Behind him, alongside a reception desk, photos on the wall pay tribute to Ami Hamami, the hotel’s manager who was killed in the attack. Hamami was married to Rina, Cohen’s sister. The hotel is co-owned by the five children of French immigrant couple Claude and Paulette Cohen, who opened the place.
Cohen and Hamami had been co-managers since 1989. It was the luck of the draw that Hamami was on duty that evening instead of Cohen – they alternated each year for seder night, and 2003 was Hamami’s turn.
After the attack, the hotel was never shut down, “not even for a day,” Cohen says. The family mourned, visited wounded staff and guests in the hospital, and began repairing the physical damage to the hotel. But that was a time of activity and action; now, Cohen says, all they can do is wait.
Cohen even refers to the current situation as the “corona pigua,” using the Hebrew word for terror attack. Though the entire Israeli tourism industry has taken a hit, he notes, hotels in locations like Netanya are in greater peril because they’re nearly fully dependent on foreign tourists.
And Netanya is almost wholly dependent on Europeans looking for an inexpensive Mediterranean getaway, and on foreign tour groups crisscrossing the country, seeking an affordable place to spend the night.
Over the summer, when hotels were allowed to open, Israelis flooded the north, the Dead Sea area and Eilat, giving the industry a partial reprieve. Few people would consider booking a vacation in Netanya so close to their homes in the center of the country.
“This is going to be long and it’s going to be painful. Usually we make it through the winter because we’ve earned so much in the spring, summer and fall. So even if there’s a vaccine tomorrow, nobody is coming to Netanya in the winter,” Cohen says.
“I don’t see the skies opening up even as far ahead as this Passover. I don’t see Birthright groups returning in the spring. I don’t see Christians coming for Easter. Maybe they’ll be back by August. But maybe they won’t.”
In his worst-case scenario, the hotel will remain closed until 2023.
The Park opened in late July for two and a half months of limited domestic business, then had to shut down again for the second lockdown. Cohen says he won’t be quick to endure this again.
“I need to be realistic. The plan is to survive at a minimal functioning level,” keeping expenses as low as possible, he says, adding that he doesn’t resent the government’s decision to shut hotels as part of the lockdown. “I think that with the spread of the disease, they really had no choice. They had to take tough steps to stop this thing.”
What bothers him most is the inequity of the burden. “They say we all have to make sacrifices, but nobody in the public sector is sacrificing, and we businesspeople are collapsing. The government is giving us some meaningful help. If you had asked me in March or April, I would have been far angrier and less hopeful – the assistance they offered then was symbolic and ridiculous,” Cohen says.
“But over the summer, the government stepped up and committed to offering assistance until June 2021, and that’s something. It provides a cushion to pay off some of our suppliers and pay expenses. That’s enough to give me some hope.”
Maxim restaurant, Haifa
No matter how long the coronavirus crisis lasts or how much of a toll it takes on his life’s work – his restaurant – Tony Mattar is certain the pandemic will never compare to the heartache he felt after October 4, 2003.
On that Saturday, a suicide bomber entered his crowded Maxim restaurant at lunchtime and blew herself up. It was one of the most devastating attacks of the second intifada, killing 21 people and wounding more than 50.
“There’s just no comparison to corona at all. That wasn’t an experience you can ever forget. Once you’ve seen your restaurant covered in blood, people whose names and faces you’ve known for years lying dead on the floor of your business, that vision doesn’t ever leave you. It stays close to your heart,” Mattar says.
“Innocent people who just came to eat a meal were killed in cold blood. It wasn’t an act of nature like a virus – it was intentional. It’s something you can never really understand or accept. I see the images in front of me every single day.
“I can’t ignore it or pretend it never happened or forget it. You have to learn to live with it – the pain, the loss, the feeling of desperation, the smell in the restaurant that day. Losing our friends, our workers, our customers. It’s not something I can compare to anything.”
As he puts it, “Right now, it may feel like the whole world has stopped. But then, it felt like the whole world had ended.”
When the attack on Maxim took place, it was also framed in the media as an attack on Arab-Jewish coexistence. The restaurant, located on the sea at the entrance to Haifa, is a multigenerational partnership between Mattar’s Maronite Christian Arab family and the Jewish Tayar family – both clans from the mixed city of Haifa and with roots in Lebanon.
Then as now, Mattar, then 36, was a manager of the restaurant and the face of the ownership in the Israeli and foreign media. Nearly two decades later, he looks very much the same, though his thick black hair has turned silver.
In a perverse way, he says, for the coronavirus era, it’s helpful to have lived through the traumatic attack and the second intifada in general. He knows there can be a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
The restaurant took two months to rebuild, “but from the moment we reopened, the business returned to what it was before. For every person who was afraid to come because of what happened, there was someone coming intentionally to strengthen us,” Mattar says.
“So I know that things can return to normal after something terrible. I know we will return. We will be back 100 percent.”
On an early September day, as Israel reacquainted itself with the lockdown, Maxim was even quieter than on a typical lockdown day. For a brief time, Mattar had ceased deliveries as the COVID infection rate spiked – he was concerned about the health of the food-preparation staff. Later he would reinstitute delivery service.
Mattar says he won’t be rushing to reopen the restaurant the moment the government lets him. “I’m going to consider my steps carefully. Just because I can open doesn’t mean I will. We had a lockdown, we opened up and now another lockdown. That’s dangerous for a business,” he says.
“I think we may have to hang on and wait for a vaccine. I don’t really expect things to truly go back to normal until that happens. The moment there’s a vaccine, things will roar back, I’m sure of it. It will be even better than before. People will be hungry to return to their lives, to go out, to be together, to enjoy themselves.”
His regular customers are clearly hungry already – they’ve been showing up at the restaurant even though there’s no food on offer. As he spoke to Haaretz, three of them wandered in, sitting at distant tables and perusing the newspaper as if in denial that the restaurant was closed.
Visiting the place and greeting Mattar was such a part of their daily routines, they said, that even if the doors had been locked, they probably would have sat on the front steps.
One of them, vehemently claiming the title of Maxim’s most loyal customer, is Igal Leibovitch, a driving instructor who has been frequenting the restaurant for 40 years. He is there “at least” five times a week and holds court there with a group of friends every Saturday in a weekly “parliament.” His family marks every important event there – engagements, births, graduations.
“Even sad things – we’ll come to Maxim after a funeral,” he says. “For me, Maxim isn’t a restaurant. It’s my home. ”
On the day of the 2003 attack – a Saturday – Leibovitch had planned to be at the restaurant but had a last-minute change of plans. When he heard what had happened, he was there in 15 minutes. “The first person I saw was Tony and I went to him and we cried together.”
Leibovitch is proud of having been the first Maxim customer two months later. The moment the restaurant reopened, he came in with a friend, another regular customer. They ordered, ate their meal and chatted with Mattar. But they had decided not to talk about what had happened, even though “inside us, the pain was like knives cutting us from the inside.”
After that day, “we knew we would recover, we were survivors. It was terrible, but it happened and it was over. Now with the coronavirus, it’s different – we don’t know when it will be over. But I’m sure that when it happens, this place will go back to being exactly how it was.”
Mattar looks at his loyal customer with gratitude. “It was then that I understood that the world was going to go on,” he says. “It gave me the strength to continue. Igal, I want you to promise me that when we open after the lockdown, you’ll be my first customer. It will show me that we’re strong and can overcome this, too.”
Mike’s Place, Tel Aviv
Gal Ganzman has forgotten nothing; he even remembers the brand of beer in his hand when he heard the deafening explosion at 12:45 A.M. at Mike’s Place in 2003. A suicide bomber had blown himself up at the entrance to the popular Tel Aviv sports bar and entertainment venue he co-owns.
“I was pouring a Tuborg when it happened,” Ganzman says, leaning across the empty wooden bar in early September, days after the business had been shut for Israel’s second lockdown of the year.
For decades, Mike’s Place has been known as a gathering spot for tourists and expats, particularly from the United States, looking for a taste of home in the form of cheeseburgers and nachos. Its decor is classic American sports bar, including walls lined with framed posters of events it has hosted – from jam sessions to comedy nights, Super Bowl parties and trivia tournaments.
Gal’s brother Assaf acquired the original Mike’s Place in Jerusalem in 1994; Gal Ganzman became a partner in 1999, and two years later the brothers opened the famous seaside Tel Aviv branch.
“The irony was that we decided to open in Tel Aviv because we were worried that otherwise we wouldn’t survive the intifada, because business was so bad in Jerusalem,” Ganzman says.
But it was the Tel Aviv venue that would live in infamy as a target in the second intifada. Not long after midnight on April 30, 2003, the bomber approached Mike’s Place and blew himself up at the entrance. The blast killed three people – Ran Baron, Yanay Weiss and waitress Dominique Hass – and wounded over 50.
The hero was security guard Avi Tabib – if he hadn’t stopped the bomber from entering, many more lives, including Ganzman’s, who was bartending, might have been lost.
“I remember the whole period after the attack – visiting our staff and customers in the hospitals,” Ganzman says. “Speaking to the family members of those who were killed or injured, painting them verbal pictures, trying to help them understand what happened as clearly as I could.”
This July and August, Ganzman found himself back behind the same bar. He had long since graduated to management duties – Mike’s Place has three branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat – but the financial toll from the coronavirus pandemic means that staff had to be cut, so Ganzman took over bartending duties in Tel Aviv once again.
Over the summer, business was about 40 to 50 percent of normal – a number Ganzman says beat expectations, considering how dependent on overseas tourists and businesspeople Mike’s Place tends to be.
On a September afternoon, Ganzman was happy to have a reason to return to his element, offering a reporter and photographer a beer across the bar during a week when he had been staying home guiding his first- and third-graders through their Zoom lessons.
Still, it was sad to see Mike’s Place once again deserted, the chairs stacked on the tables.
“Mike’s Place has always been more than just a bar or a restaurant, it’s a family, a community, an island of sanity in Tel Aviv, a happy place,” Ganzman says. “It’s somewhere people can come and be themselves without judgment.”
After the 2003 bombing, the bar only remained closed for a week. The reopening ceremony was a major event, attended by hundreds of people including the Tel Aviv mayor and the U.S. ambassador.
“We were very fortunate. Because the bomber didn’t enter, he blew up at the entrance near the guard. The damage was relatively minimal .... We wanted to reopen quickly – that was never a question,” Ganzman says.
“Mike’s Place is a living room for a lot of people, and we felt we couldn’t start our healing process until it was open. We pretty much immediately snapped back after the attack in 2003 and kept on growing and expanding.
“There was definitely a lot of momentum after the bombings and unintentional publicity following the attack – it ended up helping our business stay alive when other places folded because of the intifada.”
Ganzman believes his experience has prepared him for today; he knows that “in Israel you have to learn to roll with the punches.”
It helps, he says, to “have been through many crises over the years and to continue running our business through it. There’s a layer of young business owners who have never been through anything close to this and they’re not as well prepared because they never believed it could happen. That’s very different from us – because we know anything can happen.”
Even so, he admits that a pandemic poses a challenge even for a business that has been through wars, terror and missile attacks. Financially, he says, the situation is better than in previous crises – the support available from the government is well ahead anything offered during other grim periods. During intifadas and wars, “there was never any talk of compensation” for hotels and restaurants.
“My main fear is the fear of what will come after, especially because we’re very tourist-oriented. Any other troubles we’ve had have been a local thing, and we could think, ‘Okay, it will sort itself out. People will start coming back. You know the world might hate us for a few years,” Ganzman says.
“Last year was a great year for tourism – we broke 4 million tourists. But now we don’t know what will happen internationally. A big part of our business is people here on corporate travel. What will happen to that?
“There are a lot more questions this time. Usually you know there might be a problem for a few months or even a year and you’ll go back to what you’re used to. Now we don’t know if we’ll ever get back to what we’re used to. I hope we will. It’s a lot scarier in that sense.”