It was Thursday morning and preparations were underway in the neighborhood market for the usual rush of pre-Shabbat shoppers. At the same time, Jerusalem’s Arab residents were revving up to celebrate the end of the four-day major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha.
In the meat department, the mood was difficult among the two Muslim employees from eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods. It soon became clear that the cause of the tension felt in the air near the butcher’s section was the refusal by the grocery-store owner to allow the two to take a day off in honor of their holiday.
A brief inquiry into the issue yielded a somewhat problematic answer from the store manager. According to him, since there is no legal prohibition of work during a Muslim holiday, he could not grant them time off on a busy shopping day.
Even his two employees’ explanation that the holiday’s main custom is family visits, something that isn’t possible when at work, did not convince the manager. The crowd of shoppers, many of them from English-speaking countries, felt uneasy, but in the end, nothing dramatic happened. The workers went back to work, the customers expressed understanding, and everybody moved on.
The many Arab workers in Jerusalem and what happens if they don't work
According to data from Dr. Marik Stern – an urban-political geographer whose research and interests span cities in conflict, inter-group relationships, and modern Jerusalem at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research – about 60,000 Palestinians living on the eastern side are employed in a variety of jobs on the western side – among the approximately 370,000 Arabs living in Jerusalem.
We meet them almost everywhere on the west side, and if until a few years ago we hardly noticed them in the provision of basic services, such as construction or in the cleaning crews, then today Arab residents are present as a workforce in almost every field, from the simplest to the highest positions in hospitals, eateries, supermarkets, large home-ware, and fashion chains, and of course, as pharmacists.
The municipality (with close to 12,000 employees) also has Arab employees who have acceded to high positions in several sectors – mainly in education, health, and welfare. And there is no need to elaborate on their presence as city cleaners, both with the municipality’s sanitation department and private contractors – where they are the majority.
City councilor Laura Warton (Meretz), a member of Mayor Moshe Lion’s coalition, employs a young woman from the eastern side as spokeswoman.
And here again, last week, the issue of holiday vacation for Muslim residents came up, when Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice – the second and longest of the main holidays in the Muslim calendar – caused many Jerusalemites to find out what happens when Muslim workers are absent from their workplaces.
Bus companies announced in advance there would be disruptions, it was very difficult to find an available taxi, and in restaurants and cafes around the city, the absence of cooks and cleaners was felt. In banquet halls, there was pressure due to the absence of waiters and kitchen workers.
The municipality did not withhold leave from employees (that’s the wording of the law anyway), but asked single workers to give up their leave, or at least part of it, while married workers and those with families received the full quota of their vacation days for the holiday.
Not everyone liked what could be perceived as discrimination against single people, but sources at the municipality claim that nothing was forced, but was offered to those who wanted to work (with a handsome supplement as usual), and the overall response was high.
On the other hand, workers in the emergency services system were not affected at all, since the system mandates there are shifts all workers have to accept regardless of religion (such as observant Jews working on Shabbat).
However, the disruptions in transportation brought up an important point: on the positive side, we see increasing integration of eastern Jerusalem residents. Some saw the negative side: That their significant employment presence might enable them to paralyze Jerusalem with strikes and the like.
Regardless, In Jerusalem hopes that all those celebrating enjoyed their holiday. ❖