For several days this month, New Yorkers stood in a line that snaked down Lexington Avenue and around the corner of East 71st Street, waiting up to 90 minutes to order a drink at Caffè Aronne. Members of the city’s Jewish community, spurred by messages on social media, turned out in droves to support a coffee shop owner who had said that his employees had walked out to protest the company’s support for Israel during the war with Hamas.
The cafe’s owner, Aaron Dahan, 25, stood on the sidewalk on Nov. 7, reflecting on the spectacle that had unfolded. “Our morning shift decided to come in, unlock the store, open up and leave,” he said. “Put us in a bit of a pickle.”
The story was two things at once: a display of solidarity but also an illustration of the current divide in a city that is shaped by both its progressive ideals and its Jewish culture. It was irresistible fodder for Instagram and beyond. The Daily Mail wrote about it, as did The Jerusalem Post. A few days later, a first-person essay under Mr. Dahan’s byline was published in The New York Post with the headline: “All of N.Y.C. helped when my pro-Hamas staff quit Caffe Aronne.”
But what happened between the staff and the owner of the Upper East Side coffee shop is more complicated than initial accounts suggested. On the day that the conflict burst into public view, just one of two scheduled morning-shift workers walked out. The other stayed and made espresso drinks for hours. As the situation went viral on social media, other staffers resigned.
Interviews with five former employees, and a review of text and email messages, indicate that employees were uncomfortable with the way that their boss, who lost a family member in the violent Hamas incursion on Oct. 7, had turned their workplace into what they described as a “political space.” Suddenly, just by showing up for work, they said they were being forced to align with one side of a divisive conflict that some of them knew little about.
They said the owner was insensitive to the safety concerns that followed his displaying fund-raising fliers, Israeli flags and posters of kidnapped Israelis. At least one woman, working alone at night, said she was harassed by customers angered by the display; others reported a variety of uncomfortable interactions with customers about the war.
Now, the cafe’s former employees say they are stunned to be accused of supporting Hamas and terrorism. They said they are worried about being recognized in the neighborhood and are disappointed by their dramatic break from an employer whom most of them had liked and respected.
Mr. Dahan disputes their accounts. “It’s a very simple story,” he said. “It’s a Zionist, pro-Israel man who owns a coffee shop with a staff whose political views and morals didn’t align.”
He also accused some of his former employees of harboring antisemitic views. “Somebody on the staff told me the signs in the window, the hostage signs, are all artificial intelligence that the Israelis and Jews put together in order to justify the killing of babies,” he said.
Last week, lawyers for Mr. Dahan said in a statement that they believed the cafe’s former employees had made a “deliberate attempt to inflict maximum financial damage on Caffè Aronne and force it to close in retaliation for proudly displaying the Israeli flag and standing firmly with its people.”
“It backfired,” the statement said. “What started as a setback ended as a setup for an astonishing display of solidarity, love and support.”
In many ways, Caffè Aronne has become an unlikely microcosm of a city where tensions over the war are palpable — in mass protests and smaller daily interactions — and where well-intentioned discussion can veer quickly into angry ideological debate.
Paul Gastelum, 22, had worked for Mr. Dahan for nearly a year. He said the two men were in discussions about the possibility of Mr. Gastelum’s helping to open a Caffè Aronne outpost in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz., when he quit earlier this month. “I always knew that something positive would happen to bring the community into the cafe,” he said. “But it came at the expense of us being labeled something completely false.”