On October 21, a massive pro-Palestine protest took place in Toronto, with thousands showing up to express solidarity with those under attack. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage about the event has focused on a speaker calling for a boycott of Cafe Landwer, an Israeli restaurant chain with multiple locations in the city.
Since then, media and politicians have claimed that Cafe Landwer was targeted because it’s a “Jewish business.” For example, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow tweeted: “Last weekend protestors targeted a Jewish business in Toronto. Targeting a business in this way is wrong. There is no place in our city for antisemitism, Islamophobia, hate, intimidation and harassment of any kind.” Similar messages were spread by other elected officials at various levels, including several Ontario MPPs who also ate at the restaurant together, MPs from multiple parties and at least one Toronto city councillor. The narrative was amplified in the media, including by several prominent columnists and reporters who also made a point of frequenting the restaurant and posting about it.
This narrative, however, is wrong. Before I explain, I want to make three things clear.
First, though I’ve never spent a dollar at Cafe Landwer and never will, I’m not calling for a boycott of the restaurant. It’s not my place to do so, as it’s a matter that should be left up to Palestinian activists and organizers.
Second, Cafe Landwer and the company that owns it aren’t included in BDS National Committee’s (BDS NC) list of products/brands to boycott or as a target of one of its campaigns, nor is it included as a boycott target by the Canadian BDS Coalition. But pro-Palestinians can and do make individual choices about where to avoid spending their money, particularly given that the BDS NC’s list isn’t meant to be comprehensive.
Third, I don’t personally know, nor have I talked with, the speaker at the protest on Saturday. As such, I can’t claim to know exactly why they called for the boycott. But I do know what they said, and I do know some facts about Cafe Landwer.
As Saturday’s march moved down the street past the restaurant — this is what happened, contrary to claims that the protest was organized to target the restaurant — the speaker said: “This café is an Israeli Zionist café.” The crowd then booed and yelled, “Shame!” Then the speaker said, “Boycott them,” leading the crowd to start chanting, “Boycott!” Someone in the crowd was recorded waving a Palestinian flag in front of one of the restaurant’s windows while another person urged him to move on. The crowd continued marching to its destination.
Judging by what the speaker said, their decision to call out Cafe Landwer was motivated by their understanding of it as an “Israeli Zionist” restaurant. Here are some facts that support that interpretation.
First, contrary to what many have claimed, Cafe Landwer was not founded in Germany by a family that would be forced to flee due to the Nazis. Instead, it was co-founded in 2004 by Nir Caspi (more on him later) and two partners. The restaurant chain is owned by Israeli corporation Federman & Sons (Holdings) Ltd., who bought the Landwer Coffee roasting company from the Landwer family (who did flee Nazi Germany) in 1983. The original family hasn’t been involved with the brand in an ownership capacity for 40 years.
Second, the company doesn’t appear to market itself as a Jewish one. As noted, its current owner and its most public founder are Israeli. It’s an offshoot of an Israeli coffee roasting company. It’s a massive chain in Israel with far fewer locations outside the country. The Canadian website, meanwhile, doesn’t contain the word Jewish anywhere that I could see. It claims to serve food that is inspired by “Mediterranean and Italian cuisine.” In short, this company isn’t Jewish in the sense that a well-established restaurant such as Schwartz’s in Montreal is Jewish. It’s Israeli.
Third, many Palestinians and pro-Palestinians have avoided the restaurant chain not simply because it’s an Israeli one, but because of its co-founder and some of its actions.
Caspi, the CEO and co-founder of Cafe Landwer, formerly served in the Israeli army, and this portion of his life is often cited both by him and the media in articles about the restaurant chain. Here are some examples.
A 2017 article in The Times Of Israel by Caspi explicitly links his time in the military with the restaurant, with Caspi writing: “As a member of Shayetet, I was trained to see risks as opportunities, and I’ve tried to keep that in mind when making business decisions.”
The company is founded by an Israeli military veteran who is proud of his service in the force that is currently bombing Gaza and has been enforcing occupation and apartheid for decades.
As noted by Dave Gray-Donald on Twitter, Cafe Landwer’s parent company has also been a “‘Cooperating Organization’ with the Herzliya Conference, an Israeli national security conference that the Israeli government is heavily involved in.” They’ve been part of several of these annual conferences.
Also, back in 2015, Cafe Landwer attracted international criticism after opening a location in Jerusalem on top of the remains of an important Muslim cemetery. The head of a Palestinian NGO at the time said: “All these projects are being constructed over the skulls of Muslims buried in the cemetery … cemeteries are supposed to be protected in all religious beliefs and international conventions.”
These reasons and more explain why many Palestinians and pro-Palestinians don’t give business to Cafe Landwer.
Some critics have claimed this can’t be true because there’s no way random protesters would know all of this. But this is an unfounded insult given that, as I can attest to, these facts have been circulating for years and the speaker is likely well read enough to know about them. Even some Israel supporters are aware of this, as indicated in a 2021 article at The J which lists the restaurant as one of “the places and things BDS’ers want to drive out of business.”
You may not come away from reading these facts planning to boycott Cafe Landwer. But it should be clear to an honest observer that they’re enough for many of those who support Palestine to boycott it, and that it’s these facts that drive them to do so. This is the crucial context that has been largely missed in the conversation about Saturday’s events, which has instead focused on the supposed Jewishness of the business.
But perhaps the politicians and media figures that have decried the rally just disagree with any sort of protest/boycott of restaurants? Not so.
In 2020, Foodbenders, an independent Toronto grocery store, was targeted in an intense campaign by Zionists that included protests, boycotts, vandalism, death threats, lawsuits, removals from delivery apps, deplatforming from fundraising websites and more. Many of the journalists, pro-Israel organizations and others currently decrying the call for a boycott of Cafe Landwer supported the boycott of Foodbenders despite that campaign proving to be more sustained, destructive, and hateful. And, of course, they showed that they’re fine with boycotts of restaurants as a concept, as did some of Canada’s most powerful elected officials who joined in the condemnation of Foodbenders.
With this in mind, it’s clear the media and political focus on Cafe Landwer is another attempt to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism as a means to smear Palestinians and those who support them.
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