Russian-Americans face backlash over a war that isn’t theirs - and Jews can relate

Simcha Pasko

7 min read
A passerby rides his scooter past the Russia House Restaurant and Lounge in northwest Washington, US, March 1, 2022.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaA passerby rides his scooter past the Russia House Restaurant and Lounge in northwest Washington, US, March 1, 2022.

‘We were boycotted and received threats by phone,’ explains one Russian business owner

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade neighboring Ukraine, launching a war that devastated the region. Some 6 thousand miles away, Russians living outside of Putin’s jurisdiction are facing consequences, including harassment and abuse. 

Russian Samovar restaurant, located in New York City, was one of many businesses in the United States that was hit with discrimination due to its name and cuisine. 

“Reservations dropped 60 percent,” Vlada Von Shats, manager at Samovar, told i24NEWS. “We were boycotted and received threats by phone. We received one-star reviews.” 

Von Shats explained that almost all Russian restaurants were boycotted or faced harassment and that many, like Samovar, have had to show people where they stand. 

“We had a sign on the door from day one of the war, with a Ukrainian flag: ‘Stand with Ukraine.’ ‘No war.’” Many Russian restaurants and businesses have followed suit, with their websites, social media, and storefronts plastered with pro-Ukrainian sentiment. 

“Most Russian-themed businesses are owned by Ukrainians that escaped the Soviet Union,” Von Shats said. “We have Ukrainians that work here, and if you boycott us, they can’t make a living and send money back to Ukraine. It’s a domino effect.” 

Although a Ukrainian founded the Russian Tea Time restaurant in downtown Chicago, and the majority of the staff is Ukrainian, they are also dealing with harassment from callers, and negative social media reviews, according to the Chicago Tribune

https://www.facebook.com/RussianTeaTime/posts/51902671709917 ...

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Reviews included messages such as, “Place is a dump… get out of Ukraine,” and “Death to Russia.”

Business owners blame misinformation and a misdirection of frustration for the hatred they are receiving. 

“People are just ignorant,” Ike Gazaryan, owner of the Pushkin restaurant in downtown San Diego, said in an interview with NBC

https://www.facebook.com/pushkinsandiego/posts/2980964635548 ...

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Gazaryan claims he's had roughly 20 calls and people leaving messages on the restaurant's doorstep, along with his family being called "disgusting Russian pigs." 

In another instance, the owner of Tzarevna - a Russian restaurant in New York City - Mariia Dolinsky, told the New York Times that people have been calling non-stop, demanding to know what side of the war the owners are on. 

Russians aren’t alone, however, in facing this type of harassment. A survey conducted by Brandeis University found that nearly one-quarter of respondents - all of whom were Jewish - report having been blamed for the actions of Israel because they were Jewish. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which many countries, including the US, have adopted, includes "holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” as an act of antisemitism. 

During the Israel-Gaza conflict in May 2021, Jewish people saw a rise in antisemitic attacks, with many attributed to a pro-Palestinian cause. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), there was a 75 percent increase in antisemitism reports after the conflict broke out. Moreover, the number of incidents jumped to 222 from 127 two weeks after violence began. 

In one instance, a group of people flying Palestinian flags attacked Jewish people at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. The group could be heard yelling "Israel kills children," "Death to Jews" as well as "Free Palestine," according to a witness via the Los Angeles Times. The mayor of Los Angeles condemned the attack in a tweet. 

https://twitter.com/i/web/status/1395094656816320513 ...

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Jewish businesses also face the same type of harassment. For example, one Israeli restaurant in New Jersey, Yalla (a word in Arabic frequently used in Israel that means “let’s go”), was hit with hundreds of negative reviews, bringing their 4.6-star rating to a 2.8 within hours. 

"Stolen Palestinian food... cultural appropriation at its finest," one review said, according to the Jewish News Syndicate. Another read, “Not one food on here is ‘Israeli.’”

Antisemitism on college campuses is reaching new levels, the ADL reporting that incidents peaked during the 2020-2021 academic year, with an all-time high of 244 incidents. 

A former student recounted their experience with anti-Israel violence to i24NEWS

"While walking to take an exam at a university in Southern California, I was wearing a kippah (Jewish head covering), and someone threw a bottle at me and yelled 'Free Palestine.’”

They promptly removed the head covering, placing it in their pocket, to remove visible signs of Judaism. 

"Then in the exam room, the proctor had me put it back on because I couldn’t have anything in my pocket. I was so scared of the possibility the person - who not an hour ago tried to assault me - could be in the same room."

People from Israel itself also feel the frustration of being blamed for the conflict, with one Israeli student, Elisheva Jacobson, telling i24NEWS, “I am 21 years old! I have never even served in the army. I don’t have a direct phone line to (Prime Minister Naftali) Bennett.” 

https://twitter.com/i/web/status/1502237908236963843 ...

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She explained that she faces online harassment because she’s from Israel, and many other Israelis report the same treatment. 

When asked about antisemitism linked to Israel outside the country, Jacobson emphatically stated: “Don’t blame all Israelis for this conflict, and certainly don’t blame Jews who don’t even live here!”

Yet, both antisemitism and anti-Russian sentiment are on the rise. 

A Pew survey of American Jews, conducted in 2020, found that 75 percent of them believe there was "more antisemitism in America than there was five years ago," with 53 percent feeling personally less safe as a result. 

As for Russians, a poll done for ABC News and the Washington Post found that 80 percent of Americans see Russia as unfriendly or an enemy of the US, the worst percentage since the Cold War. 

However, as war rages in Ukraine, Russians living outside of Russia want to remind people of one thing: “It’s a one-man war,” Von Shats told i24NEWS. “It’s Putin’s war.”

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