We’ve written before about convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh, a military member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who murdered two university students, Edward Joffe and Leon Kanner, in 1969 when she put a bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket. She also unsuccessfully tried to bomb the British Consulate.

Odeh’s complicity in the bombings has been documented thoroughly, including in recent video interviews with her two Palestinian co-conspirators, who now live in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Odeh was sentenced to life in prison, but spent 10 years in prison. She was released in a prisoner exchange in 1979 for an Israeli soldier captured in Lebanon, eventually making her way to the U.S. where she became a citizen.

Odeh was so important to the terrorist movement that infamous airplane hijacker Leila Khaled formed the “Rasmea Odeh Brigade” in hopes of freeing Odeh. Odeh also was on the list of prisoners whose release was demanded by the Black September 1972 Olympic hostage takers. Yet her supporters in the U.S. portray her as a mere political activist wrongly arrested and convicted by Israel.

This past May Odeh pled guilty to one count of obtaining naturalization unlawfully based on her non-disclosure on her U.S. immigration and naturalization forms of her conviction and imprisonment in Israel.

We noted that in the immigration fraud case Odeh claimed that she falsely answered the immigration questions because she suffered from PTSD as a result of alleged Israeli torture to coerce her confession, a story that’s contradicted by objective evidence.

But in her plea agreement, she admitted the PTSD defense was false, and that she knowingly answered the questions falsely, and not due to PTSD or any other mental condition.

As we highlighted, Odeh became a heroine based on the PTSD story. Then, even though she was exposed as a total fraud with her acknowledgement in the plea agreement that the PTSD defense was phony, the myth of Odeh the victim continued. Her supporters still celebrated her, and the glorification has even intensified ahead of her deportation next month.

Odeh was recently invited by Northwestern University’s chapter of Student for Justice in Palestine’s to be its keynote speaker. A few weeks ago she was named this year’s recipient of the War Resisters League’s Grace Paley Lifetime Achievement Award. And at its national convention in April, the incongruously named Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) honored Odeh with a standing ovation.

Now a restaurant in Oakland, California is venerating her with a huge mural on its walls. The founder and owner of the new eatery—Reem Assil—thinks the former PFLP terrorist is an “emblem of resilience” and is proud to display the hand-painted image to her customers.

[Reem Assil | Reem’s California | Credit: San Francisco Eater

Offended by the local café’s glorification of violence, for the past several months a small group of Oakland residents have been organizing protests, trying to educate the local community about Odeh’s past terror activities and the two young men whose lives she snuffed out in February 1969.

At one of the vigils, the small group of protesters—including elderly people—were physically attacked. Even when there haven’t been assaults, anti-Israel activists have tried to disrupt the protests.

They’ve also been trying to shut them down altogether.

[Credit: The Jewish News of Northern California]

But as I argue further below, they’re unlikely to prevail because of the California Constitution’s expansive free speech provisions which extend to privately-owned, commercial shopping centers and malls—and even to speech that encourages people not to patronize a business.

Oakland Arab Bakery Serves Up Rasmea Odeh

Reem Assil, who is of Palestinian-Syrian descent, is a former labor activist who holds an undergraduate degree in international relations and economics from Tufts University.

After a decade spent as a community organizer, she made good use of the cooking skills she gained from a few community college courses, some on-the-job experience and a crowdsourcing campaign to open her own restaurant in an underserved part of Oakland.

Reem’s California opened its doors on May 16th and seems to have been an instant big success.

Laudatory articles in foodie journals quickly appeared. A lengthy complimentary review in the Berkeleyside.com of the business and its hard-working owner also gushed over Assil’s entrepreneurial spirit and her commendable efforts to bring “food, activism and culture” together.

To read the Berkeleyside article and hear Assil tell it, you’d think that the whole place exudes the “warmth” that’s its motto:

[Credit: San Francisco Eater]

But the problem for many is that smiling down at you while enjoying a freshly baked man’oushe (a traditional Arab flatbread) is a large “striking mural” honoring Rasmea Odeh.

The mural depicts Odeh wearing a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh. She’s also drawn wearing a pin of Oscar Grant—a 22-year-old black man and Oakland resident who was killed by police on the Fruitvale BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train station platform located right above Reem’s in 2009. Here’s the mural from a few different angles:

[Credit: San Francisco Eater]

The decision to feature Grant’s image in the mural is another example of the anti-Israel movement’s long-standing efforts to stoke racial hatred against Israel and its American-Jewish supporters by positing fictitious “intersectional” equivalences between the situation facing Palestinians and the problems of policing in America’s inner cities:

Assil clearly finds Odeh an inspiration. She’s reportedly said that the mural “pays our respects to people like her who have had to endure.”

You can watch Assil in this video speaking to the group Real Food Stories, where she describes Odeh as a “women’s right’s activist” who was targeted unfairly by the U.S. government simply because she was “outspoken on Palestine.” In her four-minute soliloquy she fails to mention the terrorism that landed Odeh in an Israeli prison. But she does manage to raise the completely unsubstantiated allegation that Odeh was a “political prisoner” who was sexually tortured to exact a confession:

Peaceful Vigils Protesting the Rasmea Odeh Mural

Shortly after Reem’s California opened, its mural prompted a small group of pro-Israel activists living in the Bay Area to organize peaceful vigils nearby.

Basically, the nonviolent vigils are an effort to raise community awareness about incitement and terrorism and how they act as obstacles to peace.

They look a lot like the protests that took place as Northwestern University and at JVP’s Chicago convention. There, people of good-will—including Jews, non-Jews, and pretty much anyone against the taking of innocent life—joined together to condemn the honoring of a convicted killer. They held signs with the images of Odeh’s victims—Leon and Edward:

[Northwestern University | Vigil for Rasmea Odeh’s Victims]

That’s what they’ve been doing in Oakland too:

Assil and her supporters have disparaged the protestors as right-wing fascists, bigots, and white supremacists. They’ve maintained that anyone opposing the mural at Reem’s is anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic.

The vigils have also been framed by Assil and her allies as an “aggressive” and “coordinated assault” on immigrants and “women of color” (see, for example, here and here).

But as with the recent vigils in Chicago, these are baseless charges.

The reality is that the Oakland demonstrations have also involved decent Americans from across the political spectrum, including self-identified leftists and even Bernie supporters.

In a video clip from the July 22nd vigil you can listen to the eloquent statement of Susan George, the elected assembly district delegate for the Democratic Party in California. She also self-identifies as a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention:

The July 22nd protest, as seen in the above video, was entirely peaceful. At no point did the protesters block access to Reem’s—they weren’t congregating inside the bakery or in front of to it, but in the open square.

Still, from the very start, anti-Israel activists insisted that the protesters “had to leave.” They kept at it, trying to drown out and put a stop to the speeches. Toward the end of the video, law enforcement officers arrive at the scene. It’s not clear who called the Oakland Police Department.

So at the July 22nd vigil Assil’s supporters made a big fuss and a ruckus trying to move and shut down the event. But there doesn’t seem to have been any physical assaults on the protesters.

That wasn’t the case during an earlier nonviolent vigil—held on July 8th.

Then, leading anti-Israel activists—identified as “part of Reem’s grassroots defense network”—showed up and physically attacked the protesters, most of whom were senior citizens.

Pro-Israel Protesters, Including the Elderly, Violently Attacked

Among those involved in the attempt to stop the protests were Lara Kiswani, Executive Director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) and Sara Kershner of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.

The shameful spectacle of Reem’s supporters turning on a peaceful protest wasn’t filmed. But some photos were taken:

[AROC’s Lara Kiswani parading with torn-up sign at Vigil to honor Rasmea Odeh’s Victims | July 8, 2017]

The images of the incident show signs and flyers ripped up and destroyed, including one held by a 78-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and a wheel-chair bound woman. Her fingers were reportedly painfully twisted in an effort to steal her poster.

Several police reports have reportedly been filed.

Some allege that Assil mobilized her allies on July 8th by “calling for reinforcements” once the vigil began. But until her involvement is verified, Assil can’t be held responsible for the aggressive actions of her customers or allies.

But she can be called out for her blatant hypocrisy—repeatedly insisting that she supports “tough dialogues” but then allowing people to act in her name in order to shut down those very interactions.

It’s worth noting that in several interviews since the controversy over her restaurant erupted, Assil has said that she “wants her food to stir up a conversation”; and that “even a hard conversation is welcome in her space.”

So Assil says that she wants her guests to “take something out with them” along with the fresh-baked man’oushe—a “challenging conversation” or even a “change of opinion.”

But if that’s true, it just begs the question: why hasn’t she denounced the months-long harassment and abuse heaped on the protesters, or reached out herself to engage with her detractors?

Will the Protest Vigils at the Fruitvale Mall Be Allowed to Continue?

The attempted shut-downs of the vigils haven’t deterred the pro-Israel protesters, even though they’ve been grossly “outnumbered and out-muscled”.

If anything, they’ve become more determined to hold their vigils in the face of the intimidation.

But now it looks like Assil is doubling down. The pro-Israel group claims that she’s making a concerted effort to have the vigils banned on the grounds that they’re unlawfully trespassing on private property.

That’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Okaland’s Fruitvale Village shopping center—where Reem’s restaurant is located—is a public/private partnership, and so even though the space in front of the restaurant where the vigils are being held looks like a public area where people can linger, mix with others and socialize, technically it may not be.

If the space is in fact privately-owned and the vigils were happening anywhere other than California and a handful of other states, the retail property owner could force the pro-Israel protesters to vacate.

That’s because in most states (but not in California) privately-owned shopping malls and centers can restrict free speech. Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that, unlike in the public square, like on city streets and in parks, the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee citizens the right to free speech on private mall properties.

But the San Francisco Bay Area pro-Israel group is in luck.

In an important 1980 case, Pruneyard Shopping Center vs. Robins (447 U.S. 74, 80), the SCOTUS upheld the general claim that citizens have no free expression rights in private shopping centers, but found that state constitutions could confer broader speech rights, if they so desired, permitting free speech in these private arenas.

Pruneyard involved a group of California high school students who were denied permission by the manager of a private mall in Campbell to man a table, hand out leaflets, and collect signatures for a petition against the virulently anti-Israel and antisemitic UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which determined that ‘Zionism is a form of racism’.

The Court stated that the student group had the right to set up a table, and approach passersby in order to solicit names for their petition, discuss the issue, and distribute their literature because the broadly worded California Constitution does in fact give citizens the right to speak and assemble freely, and to petition, including in private malls.

That is, the Supreme Court recognized that state constitutions may provide more protection than the U.S. Constitution does when it comes to speech in privately-owned malls.

[SlideShare Credit: Allen Matkins]

Thirty-seven years later, another group of pro-Israel protesters stand to benefit from this SCOTUS ruling, and other subsequent California Supreme Court decisions upholding free speech rights at shopping malls.

Particularly relevant for Reem’s protesters is a 2007 case (Fashion Valley Mall, LLC vs. NLRB, 42 Cal. 4th) which held that the state’s constitution even protects “non-commercial expressive activity” in shopping centers that involves advocating for the boycott of a store or business there. More recently, a 2013 court of appeal decision held that

a shopping mall must allow protests within aural and visual range of a targeted business whenever the mall is open to the public.”

I reached out to Faith Meltzer, one of the vigil organizers, to see if they were familiar with the various court rulings. Turns out they are.

At a protest on July 25th Meltzer told me that they brought along copies of Pruneyard, with the relevant parts highlighted. The shopping center sent over their “security staff”, who were informed by Meltzer and her colleagues that they would consider filing a civil rights action if they persisted in violating their free speech rights.

This time, Meltzer said they were left alone. Here’s a photo she sent me of the July 25th silent vigil:

[Vigil on July 25, 2017 | Credit: Faith Meltzer]

Conclusion

America is a free country, and as the owner of Oakland’s newest Arab restaurant, Reem Assil has every right to feature whatever “art” she wants to on the premises—even though she’s glorifying an unrepentant murderer and immigration fraudster.

It’s morally reprehensible, but Assil’s customers are also entitled to dine while admiring the restaurant décor and its wall of shame.

But what they don’t have the right to do in California—even in its private malls and shopping centers—is suppress the speech of those who oppose the “appalling mural” and what it represents.

Bottom line: The effort to stifle and silence Oakland’s vigils in honor of Rasmea Odeh’s victims is even more offensive and grievous than the fact that Reem’s California is decorated with a giant image of her face.

[Featured image via Twitter]

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman