After not visiting Israel for nine years, Hany Baransi, the owner of the Nazareth Restaurant and Deli in Columbus, Ohio, needed to be home in Haifa surrounded by family who would understand what he’s been going through lately — terrorism.
On February 11, Baransi’s popular restuarant was attacked by a machete-wielding assailant. The attacker, 30-year-old Mohamed Bary, was chased and killed by police after he allegedly lunged at them with a weapon. According to news reports, Bary, a Muslim from Guinea in West Africa, had previously come to the FBI’s attention with his radical Islamist statements.
While in northern Israel this week, Baransi told The Times of Israel by phone that he is sure the attack was a targeted assassination, although he was not at the restaurant at the time of the attack and had not received any threats. He said his staff told him that about half an hour before the attack, Bary had entered the restaurant asking about the owner’s national background. After staff members told Bary that Baransi was from Israel, he left. He soon returned wielding a machete and began hacking at customers and staff.
‘I am sure it was an assassination attempt. Mine is the only restaurant that displays an Israeli flag’
“I am sure it was an assassination attempt. I was the target. Why else would the Nazareth have been targeted? It wasn’t a random attack. Mine is the only restaurant in Columbus that displays an Israeli flag,” said Baransi.
Baransi, a 50-year-old Christian Arab who has lived in the United States since 1983, has always been proudly open about his Israeli nationality.
“I’m an American Israeli Christian Arab. My being Israeli comes first,” he said.
Baransi told The Times of Israel he is frustrated with law enforcement authorities and local leaders. He said that while the FBI questioned him immediately after the attack, the bureau has more recently refused to respond to his requests for information about its ongoing investigation. He is also dismayed by the refusal of authorities to label the attack as Islamic terrorism, which he is certain it was.
‘I didn’t come to America to have the president preach about Islam’
“There is a problem in the US to mention terrorism or Islamic extremism. Obama talks about how Muslims are peace-loving. I didn’t come to America to have the president preach about Islam,” Baransi asserted.
The loquacious restaurateur was buoyed by the outpouring of post-attack support he received from Columbus residents, as well as from Israelis and Jews from across the US. He was especially touched by Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer’s offer to attend the Nazareth’s reopening on March 14. (In the end, Dermer was unable to come due to a scheduling conflict, but he sent Baransi a large Israeli flag to display).
Baransi was far less charitable when he spoke of local politicians’ response to the attack.
“I have a real problem with how the government is handling things. I haven’t received any financial or moral support from any political figures. For the first weeks after the attack, not one government representative came to check on us. A city council member reached out to me shortly before we reopened the restaurant on March 14. Then the mayor called the day before the reopening and asked to come, but I told him he wasn’t welcome at that point,” Baransi said.
In the past, Baransi weathered thefts, robberies and lawsuits against his business on his own.
“I never took a penny from anyone. There were times I had to sleep in my car and eat Cheerios for breakfast, lunch and dinner to get by,” he recalled.
However, he believes this situation is different and that he deserves some official assistance.
“I’ve had to pay for the $100,000 clean up expenses on my own, which I don’t think I should have had to. And I continued to pay my employees while we were closed. It was the right thing to do, and I was sure that we would get financial help later. But we haven’t,” he said.
Baransi, who was raised as a Catholic in mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods in Haifa, went to the US after graduating from high school. He studied computers, but never ended up getting a degree. Instead, he worked in restaurants and as a car salesman.
‘I am sure it was an assassination attempt. I was the target… Mine is the only restaurant in Columbus that displays an Israeli flag’
After living first in California and Texas, Baransi settled in Columbus in 1987. By 1989, he had opened the Nazareth, which soon developed a following of regular, loyal customers. He named the restaurant after the Arab city in northern Israel where his parents were born and grew up.
“I started out just serving gyros, which are like shawarma. At the time, American people didn’t know much about hummus and falafel. But I when I made them, people tasted them and liked them so I put them on the menu. I slowly started adding other Mediterranean dishes,” Baransi recounted.
Twice-divorced with an adult daughter, Baransi currently has 20 employees from seven different countries, some of them Muslim. Many of them are young, and according to Baransi, they were overwhelmed and scared by what happened.
By contrast, he said he is not scared personally. He is, however, angry. That is why he had to get away and come home to Israel for the first time in almost a decade.
“I was angry and giving off negative energy. I’ve been dealing with the thought that somebody could have died because of me,” he explained.
‘It’s good to be around Israelis who understand what being the victim of terrorism is like. We are Israelis. We are resilient’
“I am feeling better now. It’s good to be around Israelis who understand what being the victim of terrorism is like. We are Israelis. We are resilient.”
The attack on his restaurant was a turning point for Baransi. He has decided that he will no longer go into the Nazareth everyday. Preferring to handle the restaurant’s business from behind the scenes from now on, he plans on focusing his time and energy on being an unofficial Israeli ambassador to his fellow Americans.
“I am going to fight hatred against Jews and Israelis. My daily job will be to give speeches and meet with church and charity groups to educate them about Israel, so people get the facts straight,” he said.
Baransi (who now carries a little Israeli flag with him at all times) has already been talking to local school groups about Israel for the past 15 years. He was also invited this past March to attend the annual AIPAC policy in Washington, DC, where he met Dermer and former Israeli ambassador to the US and current MK Michael Oren, and had a chance to speak to some conference attendees.
An Arab Israeli, Baransi had never really considered himself as a Zionist. But now he thinks the term might fit.
“If being a 100 percent supporter of Israel means I am a Zionist, then I guess I am,” he suggested.
Baransi left Israel on Thursday to be back in Columbus in time to prepare for the Nazareth’s first-ever Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) celebration. He’s co-hosting it with local pro-Israel and Jewish student groups.
While Baransi, who acquired a concealed carry permit six years ago, has recently started carrying a gun on a regular basis, he maintained there was no need for security at the Independence Day party.
“We’ll let God take care of us, just as he always has,” he said.