Akko business owners get back on their feet a year after riots

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A year has passed since the destruction of Uri Jeremias’ world-famous Uri-Buri restaurant and the Efendi hotel in the Israeli port city of Acre (Akko).

These two companies have become examples of coexistence in the mixed city of the north coast. But on the night of May 11, 2021, Arab rioters threw a Molotov cocktail into the restaurant and set the boutique hotel on fire.

Efendi’s 12 rooms were occupied. In one was Israeli prize winner Avi Har-Even, 84, a former head of Israel’s space program, who succumbed to injuries from the fire several weeks later.

Other businesses, including Flooka, an Arab-owned restaurant, were damaged. But the main focus was against Jewish-owned businesses in the predominantly Arab old town of Akko.

Jeremias, 77, has successfully restored both businesses and even earned TripAdvisor’s Top Travelers list.

Jeremias’ 64-member staff includes both Arabs and Jews. He said everyone had returned to work except for a woman who “suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a man who was scared, and we can’t get him to come back. “.

“We survived,” Jeremias said. “The places are operational. »

He said his Arab neighbors helped him.

“It’s important to say that it wasn’t the Arabs who did this, it was the wrong people,” Jeremias stressed. He added that the city, where Arab Muslims and Christians make up more than a third of the 50,000 population, tried to come back after the riots.

The government gave him money to repair the restaurant and hotel, and his staff took the opportunity to make additional improvements, “including the acoustics of the restaurant and the bathrooms”, he said. .

Referencing the Beach Boys song, Jeremias said the restaurant has “good vibes.”

Yet despite the relative calm, he is still rocked by the wave of violence and there is sadness in his normally twinkling blue eyes.

“The mess is not over,” Jeremias told ISRAEL21c.

Quieter than usual

Business has declined because of Covid-19 and because “people are scared,” Jeremias said the day after an attack in Tel Aviv that left three people dead and dozens injured.

“Akko is not the only place where terror strikes,” he said. “Terror has no borders.”

People only started making Efendi reservations for September and October. The Old City shuk, normally bustling during Ramadan, he said, is quieter than usual.

Afraid of losing his staff and wanting to restart as soon as possible, Jeremias opened an alternative space in another part of Akko and ran his restaurant from there. Celebrity chefs, including Michael Solomonov and Adeena Sussman, created a Uri Buri fan club to support him. He suggested they just tell their friends to come over.

“I don’t like self-pity,” he said. “I am strong.”

A better future

Amir Hitka, 23, has worked as a cook in Uri Buri for four years. He lives nearby and says things seem to be back to how they were.

“We all work together and that’s good,” Hitka said.

During Ramadan in April, the Sheikh of Akko’s main mosque, Sheikh Samir A’asi, invited 400 people, including Jews, Christians, Druze, Circassians, Baha’is and Muslims, to celebrate a festive meal, Iftar, at the mosque. .

Jeremias said this year’s event was special because it’s rare that “Muslims celebrate Ramadan, Jews celebrate Passover and Christians celebrate Easter at the same time.”

He tries to look at the positive in life, he says. “I am an optimist by definition. It’s not in my nature to cry and complain but to act. I always look ahead and try to find a better future for my children and grandchildren.

He thinks people should try to get along and that “the most important thing is to stop the radicals who foment hatred”.

A balancing act at the Arabesque

Deeper in the maze of streets in Akko’s old town is the Arabesque boutique hotel, which looters ransacked and destroyed the following night, May 12.

Owner Evan Fallenberg said his Arab neighbors tried to save the five-year-old hotel, where Fallenberg also plans to hold an artists’ retreat.

He and his son, Micha, spent three years restoring the Ottoman-era stone building.

The Israeli government compensated him financially and he also ran a crowdfunding campaign that raised $100,000 to rebuild the 300 square meter house.

“But the damage is beyond the physical,” he told ISRAEL21c. “The damage done to Akko’s reputation is not something that can be measured or compensated for.”

Arabesque owner Evan Fallenberg next to a shelf made from the piano destroyed by looters in May 2021. Photo by Diana Bletter

With tourists slowly returning, mostly from Europe, Fallenberg said it’s been a tough year.

“It’s peaceful now and everyone wants things back to normal,” Fallenberg said.

After the riots, he said he felt naive for trying to build a hotel in an Arab neighborhood. But his neighbors all reassured him that they wanted him there. It employs six people, all local residents.

He also dreams of inviting artists to come as part of a residency program, where dancers, musicians and other creators can give concerts and meet young people to “create a positive presence in the city”.

Fallenberg gestured to the unusual bookcase hanging on the wall. It is the hull of the piano that the looters destroyed last May. It is now filled with books and memories, an artistic transformation of destruction into art.

“From lemons we have to make lemonade,” Fallenberg said.

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