(JTA) — On the morning of Oct. 7, as the horrors unfolding in southern Israel reverberated through mobile screens and live-streamed videos across the world, a hummus restaurant in Germany closed its doors.
Behind Kanaan, a restaurant in northeastern Berlin serving up hummus, salads and falafel, is a rare Israeli-Palestinian partnership. Oz Ben David grew up in Ariel, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. His Palestinian co-owner Jalil Dabit comes from Ramle, a mixed city in central Israel, and has family in the West Bank and Gaza.
The restaurant has won a reputation for both its hummus — called by some “the best” in Berlin — and its message. It hosts belly dancing parties alongside employment programs for Syrian refugees and transgender Berliners. Ben David and Dabit frequently speak in public forums about coexistence.
But after Ben David’s family and friends were attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, he could not imagine walking back into work. He called Dabit in a fit of anger.
“I felt full of rage, I felt like that’s it — it’s stupid, everything I’ve worked on in the past years is stupid,” recalled Ben David. “I was giving lectures nonstop and getting invited to talk about peace, and then I lost it, I just felt like it didn’t exist in me anymore.”
Dabit, who travels between Berlin and Ramle, was in Ramle when Hamas attacked. He cried on the phone as he heard Ben David’s voice distorted by pain and vengefulness.
“He was really not the Oz that I know,” Dabit told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I let him talk — he wanted to close the restaurant, and let’s do this to Gaza, let’s do that, all the angry things that people say when they are in tough times.”
Dabit agreed to temporarily close the restaurant, but he called every day to check on his partner. As the only Palestinian child in an Israeli school during the Second Intifada, a violent Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, he witnessed Hamas bombings of buses and targets in the middle of Israeli cities. He knew intimately the machinations of terror and how Israeli children were taught to hate an enemy. And he believed that if Ben David vented his anger, he would leave it behind.
“He had the tools to understand and believe that I would come back to myself,” said Ben David.
On Oct. 13, he reopened Kanaan. The restaurant has filled with customers showing support for the Israeli-Palestinian duo, some seeking an alternative to deep social rifts over the war in Israel and Gaza.
Those divisions have spilled into the world of food and turned hummus into a political weapon. Some groups accuse Israeli chefs of “colonizing” Palestinian food, while others argue that Israeli cuisine merges recipes from the Jewish diaspora with Middle Eastern influences. In the United States, nearly 900 chefs, food authors and farmers have signed a pledge to boycott Israel-based food businesses. Other groups, such as the Philly Palestine Coalition, have boycotted restaurants that are not Israeli-owned but claim to serve Israeli food.
When Ben David and Dabit started Kanaan, they were less interested in a peace mission than in bringing the best hummus to Berlin. They met through mutual friends in the city and discovered that many German food suppliers imported supplies neither from Israel nor the Palestinian territories, preferring to avoid the politically sensitive region altogether and get their tahini from Turkey. But to Ben David’s and Dabit’s minds, the best hummus came from the West Bank.
So they established Kanaan in 2015, billed as a vegan Middle Eastern restaurant. But they soon learned that their mere existence as Israeli-Palestinian partners was divisive. When they opened, thousands of Berliners protested the “normalization” of a Palestinian working with an Israeli, while thousands of others showed up to support their business.
“We understood we were creating something really special,” Ben David told JTA.
The two decided to leverage their platform. Over the past eight years, they have used the popular restaurant as a space to promote a peaceful political solution in their shared homeland. But that project was put to the test on Oct. 7.
Some of Ben David’s family lives in Kibbutz Re’im, a secular farming community just a few miles from the Gaza Strip. As Hamas militants rampaged through the kibbutz on Oct. 7, killing five of its residents and 364 people at a nearby music festival, Ben David pieced together the news from his family members on WhatsApp.
“I’m literally talking with my cousins and my uncle that live in Kibbutz Re’im, and they said that they were locked in their security rooms and hearing the gunshots outside,” he said.
Ben David spent his childhood summers visiting his aunt and uncle at the kibbutz, playing in grass fields among the cows and goats, picking apples and peanuts. About 2,000 people lived in the three neighboring kibbutzes struck by Hamas — Re’im, Alumim and Be’eri — where at least 130 people were massacred. Many who live there represent Israel’s slim left-wing, peace-seeking bloc.
Ben David’s family survived, but a friend of his was killed at the Tribe of Nova music festival.
Dabit has stayed with his wife and children in Ramle since the war broke out, sheltering day and night from Hamas rockets. He lost contact with his family members in Gaza weeks ago.
On his mother’s side, Dabit’s family has lived in Ramle for hundreds of years. His paternal grandfather Abu Fuzi arrived from Jaffa in 1942 and opened the famed hummus restaurant Samir. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Abu Fuzi was the only member of his family who did not flee to Jordan.
“One Jewish soldier knew him from the restaurant and told him not to go, because if he ran then he would not have a place to come back to,” said Dabit. “So he decided to stay.” The business was passed down to Dabit’s father Samir and then to Dabit, who still runs the restaurant in addition to Kanaan.
As their families at home are ravaged by war, Ben David and Dabit have faced down a fraught debate about mounting antisemitism and free speech in Germany. Berlin has seen a surge of antisemitic incidents since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, from Molotov cocktails thrown at a synagogue to Stars of David painted on apartment buildings.
German authorities have responded by cracking down on demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians, including the more than 14,000 that the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry has reported killed by Israeli airstrikes. Cities such as Hamburg have blocked pro-Palestinian rallies, while Berlin’s education senator authorized schools to forbid the keffiyeh scarf and the phrase “Free Palestine.”
Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has called these bans a “justified” measure against “anti-Israel, aggressive and antisemitic” threats. But some opponents of the clampdown are Jews. One group of more than 100 Jewish Berlin writers, scholars and artists denounced the measures in an open letter that said, “If this is an attempt to atone for German history, its effect is to risk repeating it.”
In a meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Nov. 8, Ben David and Dabit offered Kanaan’s menu as an example for German society — an ideal in which all people can be heard without taking away from each other.
“We take German Kartoffelpuffer [potato pancakes] with Israeli salad and Palestinian hummus, and we create this dish that’s called Hummus Kartoffelpuffer,” said Ben David. “It’s a one-of-a-kind combination of flavors and taste, and everyone donates something to the plate — this is how German society needs to be.”
The duo often disagrees about food, business and politics. Ben David describes his political views as more right-wing than Dabit’s; for example, he believes in a peace agreement that would allow Jewish settlers to remain in the settlements of Hebron and Ariel. But there is nothing they won’t talk about.
“After time we agree, and sometimes we agree not to agree,” said Dabit. “But life is more important, and making things is better than breaking things, and building things makes them harder to destroy. So we’re building something, and we don’t want to destroy it because we don’t agree about this or that — the idea and the vision, it’s more important.”