Last Thursday, June 17, organizers of a food festival in Philly removed an Israeli food truck from the lineup after they heard protests on social media and threats of a boycott from a contingent of activists in the Palestine solidarity movement. As a result, fervor grew to a fever pitch online following claims of anti-Semitism, and by Sunday morning — an hour before the event was supposed to be held at Sunflower Philly, a community space in Kensington — organizers decided to cancel it entirely.
“I was not prepared for addressing the situation,” Cindy Ngo, founder of Eat Up the Borders and organizer of the Taste of Home event, says. The Taste of Home event would have been the group’s fourth at Sunflower Philly. (Sunflower Philly wrote in a statement on Wednesday that they allow third-party event promoters to make their own decisions regarding productions, but in the future would be taking a more hands-on approach.) “I don’t have a PR team. I have little education between the communities. I know this is a learning moment for me.”
The breakdown of communication over the event in June happened in two waves, Ngo says. “When we put out the flyer that the Moshava [food truck] was coming out for their grand opening [in May], some people were messaging me like, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t do that,’” Ngo recalls. “I’m like, why? I don’t know why.” People were commenting on Instagram and messaging Ngo that the Israeli food truck was appropriating Palestinian culture, she says. “Eat up the borders — except for the apartheid wall in Palestine,” Ngo says one comment read.
Jasper Saah, a volunteer for the Philadelphia Liberation Center, says they personally reached out to Eat Up the Borders to communicate the unified position of leaders in the Palestinian solidarity movement in Philly. “[The event flyer] started circulating among us. Our basic perspective or criticism is that this is appropriated Palestinian food that they’re marketing as Israeli food,” Saah says. “In that way, it contributes to the marginalization and erasure of Palestinian culture.” That this feedback was characterized as potential violence on Moshava’s Instagram page, Saah says, was “totally overblown.”
Nir Sheynfeld had the grand opening of his Moshava food truck — selling pita sandwiches and sides of hummus — at the Taste of Home event in May, just as the Israel-Palestine conflict was escalating. “We did have a very short discussion that stuff was happening,” Sheynfeld explains. “The conclusion was we’re going to have the event and everything was going to be fine.” Nothing bad transpired at the May event, and on their Instagram afterward, Sheynfeld posted about Taste of Home, “We couldn’t be more grateful and appreciative for the opportunity to be a part of it alongside all these amazing #smallbusinessowner[s].”
But as Ngo was putting together the June event, Ngo says she was still receiving pushback. “I was trying to deepen the conversation with the people who were pushing back. What’s wrong here? What’s the issue? Why don’t you give me a solution?” she says. “They were like, ‘Can you bring a Palestinian vendor out?’” Ngo says they had worked with a Palestinian food vendor before, so they invited them to the June event, but the vendor couldn’t make it. (Ngo declined to name the Palestinian food truck “due to what’s happening online.”) So, she continued planning the June event with only the Israeli food truck, and not the Palestinian food truck, on the flyer.
“That’s when the comments came in, the tags poured in, the messages poured in,” Ngo says. “I was at my other job and my phone was going off.” Ngo says a few days before the event was scheduled, community leaders were reaching out, saying they feared for the safety of the event. Ngo made a post on Instagram saying they would not bow to demands that Moshava be removed from Taste of Home — but the pushback continued. “The vendors were also very concerned because their families come out.” That day, Ngo says she called Sheynfeld in tears, explaining she had made the decision to disinvite him.
“I was disappointed and angry,” Sheynfeld says. “Ultimately, I told her I don’t think that that’s the right course of action. I can’t live my life or not live my life because someone is threatening or bullying me. I told her she should not do the same.” Saah at the Philadelphia Liberation Center says, “I think that Eat Up the Borders did make the right decision initially. It was a good step in having this discussion in this community as a city,” Saah says. “I do want to emphasize it could have been any type of person [running the truck]. It could have been anyone.”
Sheynfeld announced on Instagram that they had been disinvited from Taste of Home, directing frustration at Eat Up the Borders. “We really do hope that in the future you don’t succumb to such antisemitic and dividing rhetoric and keep true to your words of a safe environment for all religions and nationalities — not just all of them except Israeli and Jewish ones.”
“Obviously, we didn’t think it would go this viral,” Sheynfeld says. “We weren’t trying to smear anyone’s name. We were just genuinely really disappointed. I’m kind of surprised that it escalated to the point that it did.” By Monday morning, news of what had happened with Moshava and Eat Up the Borders had reached numerous national and international media outlets, including the Daily Mail. Before long, Ngo began receiving death threats and aggressive calls to her workplace.
Sheynfeld took to Instagram to emphasize Moshava’s stance:
Although we were disappointed with how the situation was greatly mishandled we do not believe the organizers intention came from an antisemitic place but the threats they were receiving to their event were.
Sheynfeld says he called Ngo that Sunday after seeing the thousands of comments on Eat Up the Borders’ Instagram. “She was still really shaken up,” he says. “It did feel like the whole world was coming down on her.”
He is surprised by how the situation has continued to go viral, days later. “It’s above my pay grade to try to make any political statement out of my little truck,” Sheynfeld says. “It feels like us being there, for some reason, had more magnitude than it should have had.” To move forward, Sheynfeld says he is not opposed to a dialogue with Ngo and Sunflower Philly about what happened, though no formal conversation had been arranged. “I think Cindy has been doing great things for the community,” Sheynfeld says, noting that the pair met while working at a Lebanese restaurant together. “I don’t agree with canceling her out for one mistake.”
For Saah, there has been a silver lining in all of this. “It getting this much attention has opened a lot of questions for people who might not have been thinking about this critically beforehand,” they say. “It’s definitely provided a lot of opportunities for education.”
Ngo has been reaching out to leaders from both communities, she says, to further educate herself. “We’re just a small organization caught in a bigger problem,” she says. “I never meant anything antisemitic. I never meant any harm and I am truly sorry for what happened.”