Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

How Beloved Family-Run Cafe in Hove Became a Target After Israel-Gaza War – but Community Rallied Around It

The Aroma cafe was a place where culture and diversity were celebrated and customers became “family” – that all changed on 7 October 2023

Maise, right, and her younger sister, Dunya, sit outside the family's Aroma cafe in Hove. Photo: Ciara Savvides
Maise Abuhilal, right, and her younger sister, Dunia, sit outside the family’s Aroma cafe, in Hove. Photo: Ciara Savvides

Don’t miss a story

Sign up to the Behind the Headlines newsletter (and get a free copy of Byline Times in the post)

When a small family-owned cafe in Brighton and Hove opened in 2022 its customers soon became “like family”. Israelis and Palestinians made up a large chunk of the regulars, “because it reminded them of home”, and existed in a harmonious atmosphere where culture and diversity were celebrated.

On 7 October 2023, that all changed. Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel killing 1,200. Israel countered with a now eight-month-long offensive that has horrified the world, claimed over 36,000 lives – most of them civilians – made Gaza unliveable and exposed the entire population of more than 2.2 million people to the risk of famine.

Amid calls of genocide, a World Court order for Israel to halt its assault was issued, and ignored, resulting in the deaths of 45 people in a tent camp in Rafah last week and further waves of protests and outrage across the world. US President Joe Biden on Friday urged Hamas to accept a new Israeli proposal to end the conflict saying “it’s time for this war to end” – but that’s yet to happen.

EXCLUSIVE

IDF Lies About ‘Independent’ Army Investigator Ties to AI-Targeted Killing Technology in Rafah and Gaza

The head of Israel’s probe into the Rafah bombing helped create the cutting-edge drone technology disproportionately killing civilians across Gaza – and the IDF is lying about it

At the Aroma cafe, the conflict and the public’s understanding of it, has reverberated through the George Street premises leading to a significant drop-off in business and repeated incidents of abuse.

Maise Abuhilal, who runs the café with her parents, Najat Abu-Hilal and Radi Abu-Hilal along with her brothers Zaid and Yezen Abu-Hilal and sister, Donia Abu-Hilal, explained to Byline Times that when the family, Brighton locals of almost 35 years, opened, “we managed to establish a strong connection with our customers a lot quicker than you might expect”.

“We’re very friendly with our customers, to the point where we feel like a family, we have a special bond with them,” the 22-year-old, born and raised in Brighton, added. Maise’s parents were born in Jordan, while half of her father’s siblings were born, and still live, in Palestine.

The café has a distinctive identity within the Hove community, which has a significant Middle Eastern population, and its customer base is largely Jewish.

“A lot of our customers were from Israel and Palestine, or had visited with family, and so the reason they liked our café was because it reminded them of home,” Maise said, adding: “That was the connection we had with our customers, and that was the atmosphere we had tried to create, one of community and harmony.”

Demands to Halt UK Trade Talks and Arms Sales with Israel As Netanyahu Faces Potential Arrest Over War Crimes Claims

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces arrest if he visits the UK, if the warrants are issued

The war has had a direct impact on Aroma cafe. Patronage is down. Incidents of aggression, up: “There has been a noticeable decline in the amount of customers that now come to the café. And we have received an increase in Islamophobic hatred directed towards us,” Maise told Byline Times.

Before Hamas launched their attack, 75% of Aroma’s customers were Jewish. They now make up around 35%.

“They’ve (the community) always known that we’re Palestinian, since the moment we opened. It’s not something that we’re ashamed of or that we try and hide and they’ve never had a problem with it. Several people even used to bring us cards to show support for our Eid celebration, with one customer writing ‘even though we don’t celebrate and we don’t believe we just want you to know you’re a lovely family’.”

In recent weeks, however, a woman came into the cafe shouting abuse, calling the family “terrorist sympathisers”. And when they put up posters around the East Sussex city about protest events, the woman tore them down, replacing the notices with stickers saying, ‘Labour Friends of Israel’.

Another incident saw a man walk into the cafe and “just start shouting at us, shouting about Hamas, about Palestinians, about our culture and the fact that we are not from here. It has, unfortunately, become an increasingly common event since last October.”

Israel is ‘Disappearing’ Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza – and Their Families May Never Get Answers

Palestinians are vanishing without a trace into secret prisons and detention centres, and authorities are stonewalling their families

Over the weekend, The Times revealed how the High Street and major chains, like McDonald’s, Starbucks, M&S, Waitrose and Barclays, had been impacted by pro-Palestinian campaigners using social media and apps to rally support against them over supposed ties to Israel.

Maise noted that “the depiction” of the conflict in the mainstream media as a “religious war between Muslims and Jews is manifesting tension and violence within these communities across the UK”.

“It is a way of dehumanising us by denying the diversity which exists within the Palestinian diaspora and undermining the unity between our cultures by perpetuating the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism,” she explained.

The main thrust of the discrimination the family has faced since October, Maise said, is hatred directed towards their “visibly Arab and Muslim roots”. 

“Some people walk into the café, they see my dad or my brother and they’ll be fine with them. And then they see me or my mum, who also wears a headscarf, and they cancel their orders. They’ve walked in, seen that we’re visibly Muslim and they’ve turned around and walked out. You can see there’s an automatic shift and it happens a lot.”  

Sinn Fein to Defy UK Ban on Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and Attack Labour’s ‘do Nothing Position in the Face of Genocide’

Declan Kearney attended the first Global Anti-Apartheid conference on Palestine in South Africa last weekend

In December, British police reported a 140% increase in hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in the UK compared with the same time last year. In the days after the Hamas offensive, a Jewish charity said antisemitic incidents had quadrupled, other figures showed antisemitic hate incidents reached a new high in 2023.

In Brighton, recorded cases of Islamophobia more than doubled in the nine months to December 2023, with just 43 cases in the same period in 2022. According to a report presented to Brighton and Hove councillors in March, there has been a “significant increase in both Antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents in the UK post-Hamas attack” that has led to a “polarisation of views and a strain on inter-community relations”. 

“On the one hand, you have people who are extra nice, extra friendly, people who really want to show you that you belong here,” Maise said, adding: “And then you have people who seem to have developed this incredible confidence in how much hate they have towards you. I think the conflict has allowed the two extremes to show”. 

Maise and her family suggest the media is partly to blame for tensions on the streets, suggesting reports portray the Palestinian diaspora as a homogenous Muslim population that is inherently violent which fuels animosity between the Muslim and Jewish communities. 

“By suggesting that support for Palestine means hatred towards the Jewish population, both the government and the media are complicit in creating this division between our two cultures, they have forced them into opposition rather than tried to foster solidarity between them against an oppressive state. This has fractured the sense of the community that we had created”, Maise explained.

ENJOYING THIS ARTICLE? HELP US TO PRODUCE MORE

Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and help to support fearless, independent journalism that breaks stories, shapes the agenda and holds power to account.

We’re not funded by a billionaire oligarch or an offshore hedge-fund. We rely on our readers to fund our journalism. If you like what we do, please subscribe.

Despite the flare-ups, Aroma café has worked hard to maintain its unifying atmosphere, and the community has, largely, backed them.

The family was touched by the actions of two regulars, both Jewish women, who have visited the café every Saturday since it opened, and did so on the first weekend after the 7 October attack.

“They came straight up to us and said, ‘we just want you to know, even with everything that is going on, we don’t hate you and we still love you as a family, we’re still going to keep coming and supporting you. At the end of the day this is a conflict between governments and not between us’.”

Maise added: “Within mainstream media, you rarely see Palestinian culture being celebrated or appreciated. It has this association with violence that is now the instinctive perception of Muslim people across the world. And so being able to create a space that redefines that perception is what drives the connection we have with our customers.

“Personally, I love when I see other people embracing my culture, it fills my heart with warmth. Because it’s a subconscious form of acceptance, an unspoken bond that instantly makes you feel safe.”


Written by

This article was filed under