Did a Cafe’s Pro-Israel Stance Cause a Staff Revolt? It’s Complicated.

For several days this month, New Yorkers stood in a line that snaked down Lexington Avenue and around the corner of East 71st Street, waiting up to 90 minutes to order a drink at Caffè Aronne. Members of the city’s Jewish community, spurred by messages on social media, turned out in droves to support a coffee shop owner who had said that his employees had walked out to protest the company’s support for Israel during the war with Hamas.

The cafe’s owner, Aaron Dahan, 25, stood on the sidewalk on Nov. 7, reflecting on the spectacle that had unfolded. “Our morning shift decided to come in, unlock the store, open up and leave,” he said. “Put us in a bit of a pickle.”

The story was two things at once: a display of solidarity but also an illustration of the current divide in a city that is shaped by both its progressive ideals and its Jewish culture. It was irresistible fodder for Instagram and beyond. The Daily Mail wrote about it, as did The Jerusalem Post. A few days later, a first-person essay under Mr. Dahan’s byline was published in The New York Post with the headline: “All of N.Y.C. helped when my pro-Hamas staff quit Caffe Aronne.”

But what happened between the staff and the owner of the Upper East Side coffee shop is more complicated than initial accounts suggested. On the day that the conflict burst into public view, just one of two scheduled morning-shift workers walked out. The other stayed and made espresso drinks for hours. As the situation went viral on social media, other staffers resigned.

Interviews with five former employees, and a review of text and email messages, indicate that employees were uncomfortable with the way that their boss, who lost a family member in the violent Hamas incursion on Oct. 7, had turned their workplace into what they described as a “political space.” Suddenly, just by showing up for work, they said they were being forced to align with one side of a divisive conflict that some of them knew little about.

They said the owner was insensitive to the safety concerns that followed his displaying fund-raising fliers, Israeli flags and posters of kidnapped Israelis. At least one woman, working alone at night, said she was harassed by customers angered by the display; others reported a variety of uncomfortable interactions with customers about the war.

Now, the cafe’s former employees say they are stunned to be accused of supporting Hamas and terrorism. They said they are worried about being recognized in the neighborhood and are disappointed by their dramatic break from an employer whom most of them had liked and respected.

Mr. Dahan disputes their accounts. “It’s a very simple story,” he said. “It’s a Zionist, pro-Israel man who owns a coffee shop with a staff whose political views and morals didn’t align.”

He also accused some of his former employees of harboring antisemitic views. “Somebody on the staff told me the signs in the window, the hostage signs, are all artificial intelligence that the Israelis and Jews put together in order to justify the killing of babies,” he said.

Last week, lawyers for Mr. Dahan said in a statement that they believed the cafe’s former employees had made a “deliberate attempt to inflict maximum financial damage on Caffè Aronne and force it to close in retaliation for proudly displaying the Israeli flag and standing firmly with its people.”

“It backfired,” the statement said. “What started as a setback ended as a setup for an astonishing display of solidarity, love and support.”

In many ways, Caffè Aronne has become an unlikely microcosm of a city where tensions over the war are palpable — in mass protests and smaller daily interactions — and where well-intentioned discussion can veer quickly into angry ideological debate.

Paul Gastelum, 22, had worked for Mr. Dahan for nearly a year. He said the two men were in discussions about the possibility of Mr. Gastelum’s helping to open a Caffè Aronne outpost in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz., when he quit earlier this month. “I always knew that something positive would happen to bring the community into the cafe,” he said. “But it came at the expense of us being labeled something completely false.”

Aaron Dahan, the owner of Caffè Aronne, is interviewed by a television reporter at his Upper East Side cafe.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

A Fund-Raising Flier

To Mr. Dahan, the Oct. 7 attack on Israel was personal. His cousin and the cousin’s girlfriend were among those murdered at a music festival infiltrated by Hamas terrorists. Mr. Dahan was determined to do what he could to support the Israeli cause.

In the first week after the attack, he created fliers that advertised a fund-raising campaign for Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency medical service, and posted them in his Upper East Side cafe as well as his shop in Greenwich Village and a pop-up coffee booth he operated on the High Line.

“Here at Caffè Aronne we are a team of action,” the flier stated, adding that Magen David Adom “saves the lives of tens of thousands of Israeli Jews, Muslims and Christians.”

Mr. Dahan said he has also earmarked one dollar from every coffee beverage sold and 25 percent of wine sales for the Israeli medics.

At the Upper East Side cafe and on the High Line, he also displayed Israeli flags.

The pro-Israel activism was welcomed by some customers. But Mr. Dahan’s workers were uneasy. They said they were given little advance notice or information about the fund-raising campaign, though they were frequently called upon by customers to explain it. Amid Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, some disliked the presumption by customers that they themselves supported Israel.

Paul Gastelum told his boss that he and other staffers were uncomfortable with the politicization of the cafe. “The politics of Israel and Palestine are just very messy,” he wrote.Credit…Rebecca Noble for The New York Times

‘This shouldn’t be imposed on me’

The employees tried to convey their feelings to their boss.

On Oct. 14, Mr. Gastelum texted Mr. Dahan, expressing discomfort with the fund-raising signs: “It’s your place and you decide what is displayed,” he wrote, “but I think we are tiptoeing on a line that is very uncomfortable to me and to others. I know it’s something that has affected you personally which I’m deeply sorry for. The politics of Israel and Palestine are just very messy and I feel that this shouldn’t be imposed on me and others in our place of work.”

In a phone call that evening, Mr. Gastelum said, he told Mr. Dahan that customers had been questioning some of the employees about the cafe’s support of Israel, and that it was making the women, in particular, nervous.

The next day, Mr. Gastelum heard from a colleague who told him about an incident at the Upper East Side cafe that had left her rattled. She was working alone when two men came into the store and badgered her with aggressive questions about why she supported Israel in the war.

The woman confirmed this account in a phone interview. (She and three other former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that they would be linked to the “pro-Hamas” headline in The Post.)

She said she had never heard of Magen David Adom before Mr. Dahan posted the fliers and lacked deep historical understanding of the Middle East conflict. She tried to calm the men down, she said, and eventually they left. She started keeping pepper spray close at hand when working, she said.

A few days later, a different employee quit, texting Mr. Dahan that despite being Jewish, she was uncomfortable working under the Israeli flag and felt unsafe as a result of the anger that the business’s pro-Israel stance could engender.

By early November, Mr. Dahan had put posters of kidnapped Israelis in the Upper East Side cafe windows, and tension with the staff hit a peak. “I’ve been told by almost everyone that customers have been coming in and saying/doing things that make the staff uncomfortable,” a store manager wrote to Mr. Dahan in a text message reviewed by The New York Times.

A few days later, a worker from the Greenwich Village cafe texted Mr. Dahan that she could not “continue to support a business that does not also advocate for Palestinian freedom and a cease-fire.”

Overnight, the cafe’s owner became a folk hero and the crowd of customers swelled.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Palestinian Flag Pins

On Nov. 6, the Upper East Side store manager decided to wear a Palestinian flag pin to work, she said, to convey to customers that she did not support the store’s pro-Israel stance.

The next morning, what had been an internal dispute erupted into public view.

First, the two employees on the morning shift affixed Palestinian flag pins to their aprons. One of them said in an interview that he wanted to register his protest over what he saw as Mr. Dahan’s indifference to the staff’s escalating unease.

A customer immediately took note and asked if she could photograph him. The photo quickly made its way to Facebook, and then to Peggy Dahan, Mr. Dahan’s mother.

A rat-a-tat series of communications followed: Ms. Dahan called her son, and he called the store manager. He and his employees disagree about what happened next.

The manager said that Mr. Dahan told her that anyone insisting on wearing a Palestinian pin would be fired. The store manager said she called the morning employees and conveyed the ultimatum. One of the employees then quit and walked out. The manager said she alerted Mr. Dahan and that he then changed his mind, telling her he would not fire anyone as long as they did not engage in political debate with customers.

Mr. Dahan denies that he ever threatened to fire anyone for wearing the pins.

News of the drama quickly made its way to the other employees who were not scheduled to work that morning. One of them instantly texted her resignation.

Mr. Dahan contacted his mother, he said in an interview, and told her he would need to close the shop for the day.

“Like hell you will,” Ms. Dahan, a real estate agent, said she told him.

She headed to the cafe, as did her assistant, joining the remaining barista who was still wearing the Palestinian flag pin. A larger-than-usual stream of customers flowed.

By 10:35 that morning, messages were swirling on WhatsApp and Instagram, saying that Mr. Dahan had been donating proceeds to Israel, which led his baristas to quit.

In the cafe, the crowd grew. Ms. Dahan stepped out from behind the counter to make an Instagram video with one customer, Dr. Ira Savetsky, a New York plastic surgeon with more than 45,000 followers. “Nearly all of the workers at my favorite cafe, @caffearonne, just down the block from my office, quit today because the owner is a proud Jew and supporter of Israel,” Dr. Savetsky wrote. “Please everyone go support them.”

In fact, only one morning-shift staffer had quit at that point. The other could be seen in the background of Dr. Savetsky’s video and in a photograph taken that day — working behind the counter, still wearing his Palestinian pin and an Israeli one, given to him by a customer — that was published on the cover of The New York Post. The headline read, “Bar-ista Mitzvah.”

Some workers said the fund-raising campaign made them uncomfortable.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

‘A Very Busy Day’

Hundreds of people responded. Volunteer baristas descended. Television crews arrived. Police officers stood on the corner. A flag reading “I Stand with Israel” waved from a pole affixed to a parking meter. The Instagram accounts of Jewish influencers were populated with stories of the cafe’s transcendence over employees who were said to have abandoned their boss, supposedly in a pro-Palestinian protest.

Overnight, the shop’s owner became a folk hero for a community that has felt beaten down and frightened amid a surge in overt antisemitism.

“I really feel the Jewish community coming together because of what happened in Israel,” said Judi Marcus, who heard about the cafe’s troubles on Instagram, “but even more so because of the antisemitism that has become so pronounced.”

Gilad Rabina, who is from Israel and lives in New York, saw a small way to support his country. “We’re all climbing the walls trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “I don’t even drink coffee.”

On an average day, the cafe brought in about $1,500 in revenue, Mr. Dahan said. That day, the total was above $15,000. “It’s been a very busy day,” he said, “and a surprising one.”

In the days that immediately followed, the media attention barely abated, nor did the clamor of customers wanting to support Caffè Aronne. The tide of employees quitting continued, too. The barista who wore the flag pins but had not quit on Nov. 7 did so the next day. “The media coverage is too large now and I would fear for my safety were I to come into work today,” he emailed Mr. Dahan.

By this time, Mr. Gastelum had quit, too. The store manager also resigned.

Since then, Mr. Dahan has been toasted on social media, greeted by crowds of new customers and, he said, visited by dignitaries, including one of Jerusalem’s deputy mayors.

Some of his former employees have started new jobs. Some are still looking.

Sheelagh McNeill and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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