AN ISRAELI and a Druze flag hang from the ceiling of a store in the Druze town of Daliat al-Karmel..
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israel has become famous for entrepreneurship. Around the world, people eager for the key to technological innovation seek it in some trait of the Jews that has given Israel its reputation as the “Start-Up Nation.” The business skill of Israel’s Arab citizens, however, does not get the attention it deserves.
At 21% of its population, Israel’s Arab citizens include talented artists, scientists, engineers, doctors and businessmen. Among them is the Hamoud family from the Druze village Yarka. Mounhal Hamoud and his son own and operate Merkaza, an exquisitely designed department store on a grand scale. It is so richly stocked that it impresses even Americans familiar with Costco and Walmart. Its local and imported goods are inexpensive and seemingly infinitely various – this in a country where many shoppers recall years of nationwide post-Independence-War food rationing.
The Hamoud family’s contributions to Israeli society extend beyond the commercial. Their two Merkaza stores attract customers of all backgrounds. Part of their draw is that they provide customer service at a level way above what shoppers in Israel are accustomed to.
The key, as a Hamoud family member explained to a Hebrew-language news site, is that Merkaza welcomes customers with warm Druze hospitality. Employees are trained to treat customers the way the Druze receive house guests, even if it means employees have to inconvenience themselves.
Many Israeli supermarkets sit at junctions of highways that connect Jewish and Arab towns, so many have a mix of Arab and Jewish shoppers. Merkaza does more than simply sell to a diverse set of customers. It makes a point of celebrating all the major holidays of the different types of Israelis.
This week, Mounhal Hamoud joined the mayor of Upper Nazareth – a mixed Jewish and Arab city in the lower Galilee that neighbors Arab Nazareth – in lighting the first candle of Hanukkah in the Merkaza store that serves both cities. The Druze proprietor and the secular Jewish mayor were joined at the holiday celebration by a few other secular Jews, a handful of Orthodox Jews and several dozen Arabs – some Muslim and others Christian. Several feet away stood an ornamented Christmas tree and advertisements for the store’s Christmas festival.
I watched an Arab Merkaza employee wish entering customers chag sameach (the Hebrew holiday greeting) and distribute traditional Hanukkah candy and jelly donuts, while women in hijabs (Muslim head coverings) photographed their children bobbing to Hanukkah music alongside a dancing girl in a dreidel costume. Jewish musicians played Hanukkah classics while passing by tables laden with chocolate Santas and miniature Christmas trees. It was a sweet scene of casual, happy interaction among Jews and Arabs of various religions. It was not the standard image of violent inter-communal hostility that predominates in foreign news accounts of Israel.
What the Hamoud family has added to social health and tranquility in the lower Galilee is not accounted for in GDP calculations or economic analyses. But it is palpable and rich. They deserve credit for modeling how a business can give its customers material goods, but also goodness that transcends the material.The writer recently graduated Columbia University, where he studied American History and Arabic.
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