Israel-Hamas conflict spills over to Dayton restaurant menu

Co-owner, also DPS board member, changes menu, apologizes for offending Jewish patrons

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

When Coco’s Bistro co-owner Karen Wick-Gagnet reopened her dining room as the Covid pandemic waned, she decided to include listings of “organizations to learn about and support through donation” on her spring/summer menu printed in mid-May.

One of the three organizations she included on the menu was the Palestinian Youth Movement.

The description on the menu, taken from PYM’s website, refers to itself as “a transnational, independent, grassroots movement of young Palestinians in Palestine and in exile worldwide as a result of the ongoing Zionist colonization and occupation of our homeland. Our belonging to Palestine and our aspirations for justice and liberation motivate us to assume an active role as a young generation in our national struggle for the liberation of our homeland and people.”

In an interview with The Observer, Wick-Gagnet said she had no idea the statement would offend Jewish customers, that she was unaware the language strongly implies the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel.

On email chains and Facebook posts, some of Coco’s Jewish patrons have said they won’t return to the restaurant.

After meeting with representatives of the Jewish Federation on June 1, Wick-Gagnet took the PYM item off her printed and online spring/summer menu.

Coco’s Bistro co-owner Karen Wick-Gagnet

“I’ve heard from people on social media, Facebook, a couple of phone calls,” Wick-Gagnet said. “I turned off my Facebook because I can’t — I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. But I’m calling people. People have used some pretty inflammatory language towards me: Abomination. I’m an abomination. That’s the big one that sticks out. The antisemitist, that’s been used a lot.”

Wick-Gagnet said she is devastated that she hurt so many people.

“Coco’s has always been a space and a place for me that embodies love and peace and inclusivity, and I want to meet people where they are. I would never hurt anybody, ever. I missed the whole thing, in a way. I should have been more responsible.”

Wick-Gagnet said her 25-year-old daughter, the restaurant’s namesake, suggested she include PYM on the menu, based on “issues around food and water and humanitarian things as a result of what she read is happening with some of the children.”

The Hamas terror organization, which controls Gaza and seeks the destruction of the state of Israel, launched a rocket war on Israel’s civilian population on May 10. Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire 11 days later, with more than 200 people killed in Gaza and a dozen people killed in Israel. Hamas terrorists intentionally shield themselves among and below Gaza’s civilians, in networks of tunnels.

Jewish Federation CEO Cathy Gardner, a Coco’s regular, reached out to Wick-Gagnet to meet with her and her daughter. The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council Director, Marcy Paul, also joined the June 1 conversation.

“The issue is that the language used to refer to Israel is a tinderbox that ignites the firestorm of antisemitism,” Gardner told The Observer. “It’s a one-dimensional statement. It doesn’t do anything to embrace history, truth, facts, and all people.”

Coco’s 2021 Spring/Summer Menu originally included information about the Palestinian Youth Movement. After about two weeks of blowback from her Jewish customers regarding the anti-Israel language, co-owner Karen Wick-Gagnet removed the PYM listing from the menu.

In a June 2 email to members of the Jewish community who had previously reached out to Gardner with concerns about Coco’s menu, the Jewish Federation CEO wrote that she and Paul met with Wick-Gagnet and her daughter to “help them understand why the words listed on the menu have been received with such disdain,” that PYM’s statement indicates it “clearly does not believe in Israel’s right to exist.”

Paul said she was glad Wick-Gagnet’s daughter agreed to have further conversations with her, in the hopes of creating some public dialogues.

“I was wrong,” Wick-Gagnet said. “It was wrong. It was wrong and insensitive, and it really was just a — I didn’t really like the word ignorant. It’s so harsh or whatever to me, so I don’t want to call myself ignorant, ‘cause that makes me sad a little bit inside — but it really was an honest, honest mistake.”

Wick-Gagnet, who is a member of the Dayton Public Schools Board, said she hasn’t decided if she’ll run for reelection this fall.

“So I found myself a little bit more vulnerable to kind of like a little of that chatter right now. I’d like to continue my work, but I’m a little scared of people, you know. I mean this situation has been unsettling to me.”

She said that every time the front door of her restaurant opens, she’s afraid. “I’m afraid because somebody I have cared about so deeply for a long time is going to come in, and I hurt them, and I don’t want to hurt anybody. I would never do that. I am not that person,” she says, tears streaming down her face.

“And now, I’m like, I mean, I’ve lost sleep over it, I’m really upset. It’s not financial. It’s not financial. Maybe 10 percent of what sales I do around here will come from your community. It’s not about money. It’s about people that I have loved and cared about and think this horrible thing about me, because I’m not a horrible person. I realize that I may have offended people who will never come back to my space.”

When asked if she has received election campaign contributions from the Jewish community, she responded, “a little bit, but nothing significant.”

To read the complete July 2021 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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