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BAY AREA CAFE EMPLOYEES FIRED AFTER OUTRAGE CAMPAIGN OVER ANTI-ZIONIST GRAFFITI

December 18, 2023 by MARK MISOSHNIK

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A few weeks ago, a viral video showed employees of Farley’s Cafe in Oakland blocking a woman from entering the restroom. In the video, they were arguing about anti-Zionist graffiti in the bathroom. Since then, those employees were fired, doxxed, harassed, and threatened. Four of their coworkers then resigned in protest. But what actually happened? LCRW spoke with members of Former Farley’s East United, a coalition of those who recently left the café and those still employed, to find out. 

On December 3rd, a now-former manager at Farley’s, who requested anonymity, was approached by a customer who complained about anti-Zionist graffiti in the restroom. The manager asked for clarity because the bathroom walls were filled with graffiti. Once clarified, the manager confirmed the presence of the graffiti and indicated there were no plans by ownership to remove it.

The manager told the customer directly that they were an anti-Zionist but let her continue to air her grievances. The customer repeatedly insisted she give the manager information on Zionism and refused to “agree to disagree.”

“I was trying to defuse the situation and I told her, sure, I’ll give you my email,” they said, “She handed me her phone, I started typing in my email and then I handed her phone back to her and then she made mention of the two-state solution and I told her that I do not believe in a two-state solution. And so that’s when the conversation diverged completely.”

The manager says the woman became irate and raised her voice to the point that other customers in the café looked over in alarm, with one person adding an unspecified comment that only further angered the woman. 

At this point, another employee, Jesse, stepped in. He, too, was asked if he knew of the anti-Zionist graffiti in the bathroom, and he reaffirmed that Farley’s staff knew of its presence, but it was the choice and responsibility of ownership to remove it. Jesse recalls telling her, “We’d love to talk to you more, but we’re in a rush. If you can take a breather, we’d love to talk to you more, but we can’t have this disruption.” He also told the customer he’d pass on her concerns to management, and asked her to leave because she was disrupting the café. 

It was then, according to accounts from former Farley’s employees, that the woman stepped around the employees towards the bathroom and started recording, demanding to be let in. She accused the employees of being antisemitic and Jesse replied, “I’m very pro-Semitic and pro-self-determination, to the point that the self-determination of Jewish people, I don’t believe can overrule the right of self-determination for Palestinians.”

In the video,  an employee from a neighboring business can be heard offering the woman their bathroom and the Farley’s employees are heard offering their second bathroom. The customer declined both options.

Eventually, the employees relented and let the woman in, where she recorded the graffiti that read “ZIONISM = FASCISM” and left.

A later statement by Farley’s owners said the woman was Jewish, but she never identified herself as such and, in the video, does not at any point claim she is being denied access to the bathroom because she is Jewish. That claim began circulating on social media without evidence by large accounts like ShirionOrg and StopAntisemitism, both of whom dedicate their time to outing people they claim are antisemites and often compare Palestinian activists and their supporters to Nazis. Ironically, StopAntisemitism recently platformed Andy Ngô, whose work was used to help create kill lists by the violent Neo-Nazi organization Atomwaffen.

It’s important to note that criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism are not inherently antisemitic. Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now are actively resisting Zionism, staging demonstrations across the country as Israeli aggression in Gaza continues.

“Today, the pro-Israel Right’s concerted campaign to equate principled criticism of Israel with antisemitism is on overdrive, and hyped-up controversies like the confrontation at Farley’s East provide the perfect ammunition,” Ben Lorber, Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates told LCRW.

“Like other right-wing outrage cycles, pro-Israel influencers circulate videos tailor-made for social media virality, and use a misleading spin to misrepresent incidents as antisemitic, when more often that not, the incident in question is an example of political criticism of Israel, rather than any kind of straightforward bigotry against Jews,” he added.

Hoss, who was not on shift at the time of the incident, said that in the days after, he was approached by multiple media representatives while operating the register. This led to his helping organize Former Farley’s East United.

“We all shared very similar feelings regarding the lack of protections and policy for employees that are working customer facing service positions,” Hoss said, adding, “to this day, there has been no update on policy regarding recording in the café. No policy regarding how to best manage unruly customers when that happens.”

Screenshots reviewed by LCRW show instances of doxxing against both current and former employees. Individuals have been sending them messages claiming that their faces are known to everyone in Israel. A fake Farley’s East X (formerly Twitter) account impersonating Jesse was created to argue with Zionists and spread antisemitic hatred. The account was quickly suspended. Current employees face threatening phone calls and harassment. The employees’ families have also been bombarded by messages wishing death on them.

“The moral panic generated by these outrage cycles makes it harder to identify, understand and fight real antisemitism, at a time when real antisemitism is unfortunately on the rise. And like anti-trans and other right-wing outrage campaigns, the propaganda puts marginalized communities in danger, and is used by the Right to attack social movements seeking justice,” Lorber told LCRW.

The bathroom incident was also not the first conflict at Farley’s, with the employees recalling racist harassment, assaults, and death threats. “There’s just a long history of chaos that kind of happens at Farley’s and we just kind of have to deal with it,” the former manager told LCRW. They did say, however, that kind of behavior is par for the course working a service job. Regardless, employees LCRW spoke to said ownership was made aware of every one of these incidents and never implemented safety changes, instead simply thanking the employees for stepping in and handling things.

Chris Hillyard, one of the owners, reportedly knew about the anti-Zionist graffiti for two months and chose not to remove it. It was only after Farley ’s got review-bombed on Yelp and Google that he took the situation more seriously. Hillyard called a meeting to discuss it, but no action was taken, even after employees asked him to remove the graffiti to prevent further harassment. 

Chris Hillyard and his wife, Amy, also met with Tye Gregory, the CEO of San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council and a former member of AIPAC’s political department. After the meeting with Gregory, the Hillyards released a December 8th statement saying the event “perpetuate[s] the rise of antisemitism” and employees’ statements during the incident were otherizing. The employees were fired.

The firing came as a shock to Jesse and the manager after 6 years of employment at Farley’s, especially in a workplace that all the employees spoke very positively about. 

“It feels like a very supportive place and it almost feels as close to worker-owned without being worker-owned,” Jesse said, “I felt good about where I worked for the first time and I felt good about representing a place that had been really good to us during the pandemic from my view, and some really hard things I’ve gone through. So this has been, yeah, really shocking.”

The manager added, “To have such a deep relationship with the Hillyards be severed and because they buckled to extremists and allow[ed] lies to be told about us, people that they know, people that they’ve called family like multiple times is just absolutely sickening.”

Many of their customers expressed dismay on Former Farley’s East United’s Instagram page, lamenting what they say is a betrayal of the values the Hillyards claimed to have. One commenter said, “This is so messed up especially [because] Farley’s has felt like more of a revolutionary/counter culture space for years.”

“Farley’s wouldn’t be what it is without y’all!” commented a customer. “The staff are the ONLY reason me and my family kept coming back,” said another. Many customers, as well as the affected employees, are calling for a boycott of Farley’s East.

Former Farley’s East United is currently working on a list of demands. Chris and Amy Hillyard have closed the San Francisco location for the rest of the year, against the wishes of their employees.

Ultimately, the employees say, this is all a distraction from the bigger issue: Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. They were unified in a call for an immediate ceasefire and told LCRW they are encouraging people to donate to “a fund for eSims as that seems to be the most helpful for everyone.”

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