A bakery in Oakland, California sparked controversy shortly after its opening last month when the eatery decided to feature a decidedly un-kosher mural on one of its walls.
In May, Reem Assil opened “Reem’s California”, an Arab-style bakery in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. In 2016, Assil raised more than $50,000 with a Kickstarter campaign to help launch her new business.
But within weeks of its opening, customers began to realize that Reem’s California was not merely a restaurant, but a political statement.
A large mural glorifying PFLP terrorist Rasmea Odeh, who in 1969 murdered two Jewish college students and injured nine others in a Jerusalem bombing, covers one wall of the eatery.
Odeh, who was released a decade after the attack in a prisoner swap, managed to immigrate to the US in 2004 under an assumed identity. Odeh was eventually convicted of fraud and stripped of her American citizenship.
While most small business owners – particularly those with a new restaurant struggling to create a loyal customer base – would avoid making politics an feature at their establishment, for Assil, it’s part of the bakery’s mission.
Assil, 34, was raised in a Boston suburb by parents who immigrated to the US from Syria and the Gaza Strip.
For years, Assil has been active in radical left-wing and anti-Israel causes in the San Francisco Bay Area, and was a member of the Arab Resource and Organization Center (AROC), a fringe anti-Israel group responsible for organizing protests to block Israeli imports from entering the US.
The inspiration to found the bakery, Assil says, came during a trip to Syria and Lebanon.
“My people are masters of bread and hospitality,” Assil wrote on the bakery’s Kickstarter page of her awakening.
“On this soul searching trip to Lebanon and Syria, I decided to bring this experience to the Bay. I wanted to bring more than just a bakery. I wanted to create a transportive experience of the sights, sounds, tastes and aromas of the streets of Damascus and Beirut, and at the same time a space that feels familiar and inviting to all cultures.”
"With Reem's, I wanted the American public to know what Arabs are really about,” Assil told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And what attracts people to the space I'm creating is they can tell it gives them a chance to show off their own cultures."
Given her past, Reem’s glorification of a murderer like Odeh becomes less startling – though no less disturbing.
In August 2014, Reem was among a group of AROC activists who blocked Israeli ZIM freighters attempting to unload Israeli-made goods at the Port of Oakland.
“Let the world register that on 16 August 2014, we prevented the apartheid ZIM liner for the second time from docking and unloading anywhere on the West Coast,” a statement by the AROC read.
Assil freely admits that her quarrel is not merely with Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, but with “the whole Zionist project in Israel”.
“We really want to take the conversation beyond the massacre in Gaza, and to the whole Zionist project in Israel and what it is being imposed on Palestinians because we know this is cyclical,” Assil told Electronic Intifada.
“It’s not just about the military offensive in Gaza. That sparked an international outrage, but we know this is nothing new. The ceasefire is still up in the air, and we want to make sure to use this point in our history to make sure this never happens again. Part of doing that is to isolate Israel,” Assil said.
After the inevitable backlash against the mural erupted, Assil unsurprisingly blamed criticism for her choice of decoration on “the Zionists”, and doubled-down on her choice.
“The zionists are trying me right now,” Assil wrote on Facebook on May 31st.
“Masquerading with their low life ways trying to defame me on yelp, Facebook, and other publications I’ve been written up in. I knew when I made a decision to put Rasmeah Odeh up on my wall that I would get backlash but I also had faith that all would be okay because my community and everything built through Reem’s would protect me.”
Below: Assil addresses an event organized by Movement Generation in Oakland, 2014.