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food fight? Kosher restaurant in New Jersey targeted with bad reviews by anti-Israel activists

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The Yalla kosher restaurant in Teaneck, NJ has been the target of anti-Israel criticism. Photo: Screenshot from Google Maps.

JNS.org – Online restaurant reviews are the latest battleground for anti-Israel activists who recently attacked a New Jersey kosher restaurant with a barrage of anti-Semitic comments, including claims that the food was “stolen.”

Yalla is located in a so-called relatively small “Kosher Restaurant Row” in Teaneck, New Jersey, and is not on a major thoroughfare, nor does it have a customer base outside of northern New Jersey’s Jewish community. What it does have, however, is an Arabic name — Yalla, which is commonly used in Israel and means “let’s go” — and has garnered some online attention, albeit not in a good way.

According to Jacob Goldberg, Yalla’s owner, who is originally from Israel, he has received a number of One Start reviews in recent years from people claiming, “I stole their land; I stole the name; I stole the food. It has nothing to do with anything here. It is ridiculous.”

More often than not, Goldberg simply flags the reviews on Google and asks that they be removed. “Sometimes,” he explained, “it’s very obviously hate speech, and it comes down. But if it is related to food – as I found a hair in my food – even though someone from Damascus posts it and obviously has never been to my restaurant, the computer does not show it.”

So Goldberg decided on a new tactic; Last week, he responded to the review himself, sparking a firestorm when the poster urged Palestinian supporters via social media to add more one-star or unfavorable reviews of Yalla. A TikTok video was even posted by a woman who said, “So this Israeli restaurant in Teaneck, NJ is falsely promoting Palestinian Middle Eastern cuisine. Here’s what their menu looks like, falafel and shawarma. Oh no. So we Palestinians have to do the work. You messed with the wrong people. … Free Palestine.”

Within a few hours, Yalla’s 4.6 star rating (out of a maximum of five stars) dropped to under 3.9 and then all the way down to 2.8. The rating lists were suddenly filled with comments like: “Stolen Palestinian food and the owner has gone out of his way…cultural appropriation in the truest sense of the word.” [sic] finest… bad place DO NOT GO THERE AND WASTE YOUR MONEY!!!” and “Not a single meal here is ‘Israeli.’ Keep moving folks this place is absolute rubbish and their food has NO flavor but is overpriced. They steal the mind and the land and serve you shit on a plate. Never again.”

Negative reviews targeting Yalla were found on Yelp. Photo: Screenshot.

“A digital force instead of physical means”

Liora Rez, executive director of Stop Antisemitism, said: “Attacking a kosher restaurant in New Jersey and blaming it for a global political conflict is undoubtedly antisemitic.”

“Instead of participating in targeted campaigns of harassment against innocent Jewish business owners, we would prefer that Palestinian youth participate in peace and normalization initiatives that would help both Jews and Arabs,” she said.

Goldberg believes at least 300 one-star reviews were posted that night, some of which also included Palestinian flags and the words “Free Palestine.”

“If you’re being attacked in real life, call 9-1-1 and the police will answer, but if you’re being attacked online, nothing, nothing, nothing happens. … A 5-year-old can look at these reviews and say they’re fake, but Google – a multi-billion dollar company – can’t flag something like that, a fake is just pretty amazing.”

After Goldberg had no luck reaching Google himself, he reported the incident to the Anti-Defamation League, which confirmed it was a case of anti-Semitism.

“This concerted effort to suppress reviews in order to harm individuals rather than a political entity ends up being problematic and downright anti-Semitic,” said Alexander Rosemberg, deputy regional director for the ADL NY/NJ region. “That is absolutely wrong.”

“…It’s like taking aim at someone in the middle of Times Square for wearing a yarmulke; It’s just a digital force instead of physical means,” he added.

According to Rosemberg, the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society is in touch with the big tech companies and is currently speaking to Google about the Yalla incident.

“We should all be very knowledgeable and aware of the processes and procedures that these platforms have put in place to denounce harmful and nefarious behavior,” he said, noting that the ADL has a guide to cybersecurity measures that people use helps to know their rights.

Although the number of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel criticisms was troubling, what happened next was encouraging, Goldberg said. Several Jewish and pro-Israel groups, including Raz’s organization, StopAntiSemitism.org, rallied to counter the negative reviews and bring Yalla’s ranking back to where it was before the cyber-fight.

According to Goldberg, since news of the cyber fight broke on Sunday, people have been stopping by Yalla “just to show their support.” And that, he said, “feels great.”

When asked if the press would boost business, he replied, “In the short term, I got a lot of support from Jews who felt they needed to come out and fight hate. I don’t think it will have much of an impact in the long term. I’ve spoken to many people who think Google reviews are mostly fake anyway, especially when you see pro-Palestinian reviews. They trust the old-fashioned way of ratings from friends and family. So probably not much impact.”

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