Israeli Restaurants Come Under Attack From Anti-vaxxers for Enforcing COVID Rules

'I never thought there was a question of whether I needed to obey the law, but suddenly people tell me they're going to boycott me,' says one owner threatened for enforcing regulations barring indoor seating for unvaccinated

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Diners at a newly reopened Jerusalem cafe on Sunday.
Diners at a newly reopened Jerusalem cafe on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Restaurants and cafes opened on Sunday to sit-down dining for the first time in six months. Already squeezed by coronavirus crowd control rules and difficulties hiring staff while generous unemployment policies remain in effect, these businesses now face another threat: Anti-vaxxers who say that restaurants shouldn’t comply with regulations allowing sit-down dining only to people who can show they have been vaccinated with the government’s Green Pass or a negative COVID test.

The controversy around vaccinations and the Green Pass has already gone from debate to threats and verbal violence, mainly on the part of anti-vaxxers. The controversy has surfaced on the Tivonei Ta’im (Tasty Vegan) Facebook group, whose 35,000 members ordinarily trade information on vegan products and recipes.

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In response, the site’s administrator was forced to set rules: “Don’t discuss being for or against vaccines at all; don’t mention anything related to Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, yellow badges, fascism and all that; political issues shouldn’t be discussed; do not incite or call for a boycott against any side, any person or business; under no circumstances should you defame, belittle, slander, swear and speak ill of each other.”

Ilil Yahav, who owns the Tel Aviv vegan restaurant Goodness, had posted earlier that she planned to adhere to the coronavirus directives on access. The negative responses didn’t take long in coming both on her private Facebook page and on that of the restaurant’s.

“What will happen after what you have written is that people who really care will not come to eat at your place and will remember you badly forever. Even if you erase everything right now, I’ve taken a picture to remember to never eat there,” said one. Another vowed, “I’m finished with Goodness. If there’s anyone who knows how to do a consumer boycott, it’s vegans.”

Diners seated at a newly reopened cafe in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Others accused Yahav of fascism and compared her with Nazi collaborators during World War II. “It’s good that you’ve joined the list of businesses that have surrendered to Fascist dictates. Soon the Green nonsense will end, but you’ll be left with its stain the rest of your life.”

Yahav, a 42-year-old single mother, said she was surprised by the virulence. “I never thought there was a question of whether I needed to obey the law or not. But suddenly not a few people told me they’re going to boycott me because I’m following the government’s directives,” she said.

As it is, it’s been a hard year for restaurateurs like Yahav. Because workers on unpaid leave are entitled to unemployment benefits until June, many of her old staff are refusing to come back to work now. Normally, Yahav said, she needs 30 and only about a third of these were due to come in on Sunday when Goodness reopens for sit-down dining. Government policy zig-zags made it impossible for restaurant owners to plan and prepare.

“Under the current circumstances, with the vaccinations, I decided that this isn’t a war I’m going to fight. I simply can’t cope with that, too, after everything that’s happened over the last year,” she said.

The posts she’s seen have called her a Nazi, fascist and traitor. “I understand how complicated the issue is about forcing people to vaccinate, but business owners don’t need to be put between a rock and a hard place,” Yahav said.

The complications and uncertainty continue. On Friday, the Health Ministry issued detailed directives to restaurants that were more draconian than the preliminary rules it had sent out, among other things calling for distances between tables to be bigger.

Naama Keinan makes no apologies for the offensive against restaurant owners. She has staged rallies with hundreds of others over the last few months every Thursday at Habima Square claiming that the pandemic threat has been blown out of proportion and that the government’s measures to fight it infringe on the right to privacy.

“As I see it, anyone who cooperates with immoral law is abetting a crime. Small businesses, which have been the ones most badly affected by the [COVID] crisis need to say that they won’t cooperate on this. We’ll come and support them,” Keinan said “They can open as they normally would and if they get fined, they can go to court and win. Legality is on their side because we’re talking about emergency regulations that violate privacy rights.”

Keinan doesn’t limit her criticism just to business owners. “I don’t understand the left that is supposed to be enlightened and democratic. They’ve murdered democracy and they have been silenced by fear, overwhelmed by existential fear,” she said. She complained that the media had barely covered protests against forced vaccination and hotel quarantines even though they have drawn thousands of people. “When they do cover it, they portray us as delusional,” Keinan added.

Lilach Sapir, owner of Tel Aviv’s Peacock Bar and one of the leaders of the Israel Restaurant Association, said anti-vaxxers had targeted quite a few restaurants, whose owners had sent her examples of threatening statements.

A Jerusalem cafe reopens on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We’re now seeing a trend among some anti-vaxxers to go to business owners and tell them what they have to do for the sake of the struggle,” Sapir said, adding that she herself had been targeted. “Last week I was interviewed on television where I explained what the rules were that we had reached with the Health Ministry, including entry only to people with a Green Pass. Right after, someone posted my picture and told me what I have to do to help with the struggle – to keep my place closed and sue [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. He also wrote that I was collaborating with terrorists.”

Sapir said she would have preferred that the government had settled for just the Purple Badges it issues for businesses that adhere to coronavirus rules. But, she said, the restaurants had no control over policy

“To come to a business that’s been closed continuously for 170 days since the second lockdown and attack it for refusing to commit economic suicide for the struggle, that really isn’t democratic,” she said. “Where were all those people opposed to compulsory enforcement when they barred restaurants from letting people smoke because it harms the health of others?”

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