It’s a shame that the customers at Goldberg’s Bagels are more homogeneous now than what we had come to expect from owner Yaakov Drebin’s clientele. Until late October, his shop catered to a mix of Jews of varying degrees of observance as well as people of different religions and ethnicities, and, of course, political affiliations. These days, most customers he sees in the shop are noticeably Orthodox. What happened to cause this change?
Campaign Fun Turns Ugly
A couple of weeks before the election, a few Republican campaigners made unannounced stops in various Pikesville locations to promote their candidates. One stop was in the parking lot outside Goldberg’s Bagels. For about 20 minutes, this diverse group, with Jews and African-American campaign people among them, gave out flyers and spoke to anyone interested in engaging in conversation. According to their reports, it was mostly a fun day for everyone. There was a lot of friendly banter and picture taking (particularly because some of the campaigners were wearing Trump masks for fun) as well as music coming from a truck emblazoned with Republican names, with Donald Trump’s prominently displayed.
According to several eye witnesses, while the group was outside Goldberg’s, a woman customer who exited the store began yelling and cursing at the Republican group outside. She was decrying their support for Trump, and also used foul language to describe the presidential candidate.
Richard B,* an African-American, was with the Trump campaigners that day and saw no problem at Goldberg’s other than the woman who was yelling. “I thought the campaigning went quite well. We all have rights to do what we do. Mr. Drebin told the woman [who was cursing] that everybody has their rights to free speech. I didn’t want to pay her any mind, so I just ignored her. We all had a good time that day.”
Mr. Drebin, who had been busy in the store and was not even aware of the campaigners outside, happened to come outside shortly after the woman customer began verbally assaulting them.
“I don’t care if they are Democrats or Republicans or Green Party. Anyone is allowed to campaign outside my store. I don’t know exactly what happened before I got outside but when I walked out to do something she was screaming at these people, asking them how they can support a *bleep bleep* candidate and how he’s a this and a that, every bad thing you can think of, swearing at them and using terrible language. I watched her for a few seconds and said, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ She asked me ‘Why are you allowing these people to be here?’ I told her, ‘They have a right to be here.’ She said, ‘No, no, no. They have no right to be here.’ I said, ‘Yes they do. They do have a right to be here. That’s the way it is around here. We let everybody come.’ She said that she was a customer and these people have no right to be here.”
At that point, Mr. Drebin ordered her to leave the area, threatening to call the police. After some more arguing back and forth, she finally left. But not before telling him, “I am a customer. I will never come back, and I am going to tell everybody about you.” According to Mr. Drebin, that was the beginning of what became a boycott of his store.
Supercharged Lashon Hara
After the election, many people found out that Mr. Drebin voted for Trump, and an online smear campaign began in earnest through Facebook and other sites where negative business reviews can be posted. Goldberg’s Bagels received many new bad reviews, based not on the quality of the food and service but strictly because of his political affiliation. There were also many postings on the Goldberg’s Facebook page accusing Mr. Drebin of being a racist, among other things, simply because he “admitted” to have voted for Trump. Some called for a boycott of the business, and, unfortunately, many have heeded the call.
This particular incident was not the only thing referenced in the call for a boycott. A Baltimore Jewish publication reported a story of a separate incident, in which a Goldberg’s customer was said to have been harassed during those same 20 minutes that the Republican campaigners were present. I spoke to the person who made the claim, but he was either unwilling or unable to find another witness who would agree to speak to me, even anonymously. And no one whom I did speak with who was there at the time witnessed any evidence of the second incident. Nonetheless, rumors regarding this second event appeared on social media and continued to grow.
If you thought lashon hara (slander) was a problem before the internet, it can spread like wildfire now! It goes to show how unscrupulous people can manipulate the truth and take advantage of the fact that we all tend to believe what we read.
Ruth Goetz, who sits on the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, was with the campaigners that day. “The concept that people are slandering and boycotting a small business owner because of whom he voted for or what political party he supports is so anti-American.”
Miriam,* another witness to the events of that Sunday, is also outraged. “Mr. Drebin is being subject to what I can only call a blood libel – viciously smeared and boycotted. I have never seen such vitriol in America directed at supporters of a presidential candidate. This happens in dictatorships, where you must support one candidate or you are attacked. Attacking Goldberg’s on Facebook and other media for his support for Trump is fascism.”
Lisa Robin Lederman, who was campaigning for Dr. Mark Plaster along with the Trump people outside of Goldberg’s that day, is disappointed in how the Goldberg’s stop was portrayed in the popular Jewish publication. “It was so untrue. No one was being harassed. No one was wearing masks inside the store. All of the campaigning took place outside. When the Trump campaigners went inside [to get food], they took their masks off. I don’t think this is even a Trump issue. This is a free speech issue and that’s where the focus should be. Everybody is allowed to campaign; that’s what free elections are about.
“I saw the woman come out and ask Drebin, ‘How dare you let these people do this?’ and he said ‘They have a right.’ For people to boycott a restaurant because of the owner’s political views is really sad, really disgraceful and pathetic, especially in the Jewish community where we have enough people attacking us. We should be supporting one another, not trying to tear businesses apart.
“We have the right to articulate our opinions and try to educate others under the protection of free speech laws. Wherever we went that day, people were having fun, taking pictures and enjoying the music. It was a fun way to campaign.” Ms. Lederman laments that the events of that day got so twisted by false media (and online social media) reports.“It is unfortunate that Mr. Drebin got put in the middle of this through no fault of his own and that some people are simply being intolerant of other points of view.”
It is not only Republican supporters who feel this way. Jay Bernstein, who wrote a pre-election column in these pages in support of Hillary Clinton, had this reaction: “As much as I am repulsed by and fearful of a Trump presidency, an organized boycott of a business owner who has a different point of view is an intolerant and obnoxious over-reaction which will only deepen the nation’s partisan divide.”
Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein, often considered the epitome of a liberal Democrat, says, “I have been a supporter of the values of the Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic party all my life. I think that the reaction to this election by many Democrats is overheated. I understand that they are very disappointed that Hillary Clinton lost and have legitimate concerns about Donald Trump, but the election is over. Trump won. We need to unite to support our democracy. Boycotting businesses is not acceptable.
“It is incredible to me that some of my fellow Democrats, the same people who cherish the First Amendment, won’t allow freedom of speech unless it is their freedom of speech. It is shortsighted and detrimental to the Jewish community to have such open hostility to one of our two political parties. In time we may regret the choice of Trump, but I agree with Hillary Clinton that we have to give him a chance.
“I am proud to be in favor of social justice but I do not share their dismissal of the legitimacy of this election. It goes far beyond the irresponsible statements that Trump has made and beyond his political philosophy. It is condescending to almost half the population to say that the winner is not legitimate because he was not their choice.”
Mr. Drebin has undoubtedly lost business. However, he says that sometimes it is true that “even bad publicity can be good publicity.” He received local and national media attention after he posted a note to customers on his Facebook page, asking for their support to counteract the recent unfair bad business reviews. His post has been shared by over 740 people to date, and his online business has been booming. Before the boycott, he had one or two online orders a day. Last weekend he had nearly 200! Sean and Frank of the early morning WCBM radio show have also helped. On air, they suggested a “buy-cott” to counteract the boycott. The buy-cott has actually brought in several new customers. While this is good news, Mr. Drebin says that things have not yet turned around. His business continues to suffer a setback of an approximately15% drop in sales as a result of the boycott.
Mr. Drebin remains optimistic, however. He hopes that one day many of his former customers will find their way back to the store. This would benefit more than Goldberg’s Bagels. Having a casual eatery in town where all Jews can relax and enjoy meeting each other is a tremendous boon to the achdus (unity) that Baltimore Jewry is famous for and that should continue despite differing political views.