Counting the costs

Though the public consciousness tends to focus on the human victims of ongoing terror, Jerusalem’s businesses are suffering as well.

Walking down the normally bustling Ben-Yehuda Street, one finds the heart of Jerusalem uncannily empty (and security out in force) (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Walking down the normally bustling Ben-Yehuda Street, one finds the heart of Jerusalem uncannily empty (and security out in force)
Jerusalem – a veteran of two intifadas – has weathered far darker days in its long history of conflict than the tense few weeks we have just gone through.
However, the current state of affairs has taken its toll on the city, leaving a certain air of gloom that may require some time to dissipate.
Several Israelis have paid the ultimate price, with dozens more still in hospitals.
Then there are those who bear the economic burden of recent events in near silence, understandably eclipsed by those who paid the price in blood.
Small businesses in Jerusalem have been brushed politely to the sidelines of national news coverage, and their plight in the face of the current crisis – in many cases, the risk of bankruptcy – remains outside the public’s consciousness. In effect, the shape of these businesses reflects the public mood during such difficult times.
“People are going out less, pure and simple,” says Ben, who runs a small falafel place near King George Avenue and identifies a clear drop in clientele. He is now feeling the crunch that has inevitably followed.
“I have sent some of my workers home more than once, when hardly any customers were coming in. Things have improved a little, but it’s still nowhere near the numbers we had during the holidays, before all this mess started,” he says.
To any Jerusalemite well accustomed to the sight of a bustling Mahaneh Yehuda on an average Friday morning or the same market buzzing with nightlife at bars and restaurants on a Saturday evening, no survey or statistics are necessary to sense that the city has gone into a slumber in recent weeks.
Walking down the normally busy Ben-Yehuda Street in the evening, one finds the heart of Jerusalem uncannily empty. The souvenir shops that dot the city center showcase idle storekeepers reading newspapers behind the counter to pass the hours, almost uninterrupted by incoming customers. Around the corner a waitress attends to two diners in an otherwise empty restaurant, while another bored waiter sits on display at the entrance, fiddling with his phone. A secondhand bookshop nearby is closing two hours early.
The reasons behind this sluggishness are manifold. Domestic tourism has seen a sharp dive, as many organized trips to Jerusalem – thousands of visitors by some counts – were canceled in light of recent violence, ending in painful losses for local restaurants, museums and leisure spots.
Likewise, tourism from abroad, while still visible on the streets of the capital, is projected by the municipality to slow down significantly in November and onward.
AGAINST SUCH a backdrop, it is small businesses that are hit the hardest. Local shops and restaurants depend on a steady flow of customers to maintain a cash flow balance, so they are particularly sensitive to a decrease in commercial activity that nearly always comes with peaks in violence and political tension.
During last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, for example, businesses suffered a dip of nearly 15 percent in profits, with the tourism industry being hit particularly hard (25%-35% drop in visitors) well into October, long after the hostilities had ended.
But tourism accounted for, the marked drop in local clientele makes up the bulk share of losses suffered by businesses in this current round of violence. Ruthie, a local artist and manager of a ceramic arts and crafts shop in Nahalat Shiva, believes it is not just a sense of caution in the face of physical danger that is keeping Jerusalemites at home but a general malaise that has struck the city and will persist long after the attacks have subsided.
“There is a strong sense that there is no prospect of a long-term solution on the horizon,” she laments. “It’s not so much the danger of walking in the streets as it is the overall fatigue of dealing with these crises, without any sense that we are actually heading somewhere.”
Indeed, most of the criticism leveled at the government centers around the argument that not enough is being done to promote a long-term strategy that could lead to a resolution of the conflict. It may be that the empty shops of Nahalat Shiva are only the most visible symptoms of a public condition that runs much deeper than can be seen on the surface.
Ruthie runs a cooperative shop that showcases the ceramic arts and crafts made by 11 local artists, who might well be among the first to be hit financially during such times, as art products are often the first luxuries to be given up when locals tighten their belts. Whereas a mere month ago, over the holidays, she would see around 10 sales a day, she now reports an average of one or two sales – barely enough to keep her head above water.
As Ruthie elaborates on the heavy toll of these tumultuous days, her eyes light up as the second customer in several hours enters the shop. She excitedly escorts the newcomer as he combs the shelves for a gift to buy, and the possibility of an actual purchase fills the room with tense anticipation, softened only by the sound of heavy rain outside. Finally the customer comes to a decision, and Ruthie makes her first sale of the day. It is around 6 p.m.
What remains to be seen is whether the municipality will take any concrete steps to alleviate the financial burden borne by small businesses. When asked what such possible measures could be, Ruthie mentions an initiative led by Eden, a Jerusalem-based development company dedicated to the advancement of local businesses: “This past summer, Eden sponsored the project that put up hundreds of colorful parasols over Nahalat Shiva. The idea attracted thousands to the street, even people from around the country.”
Mixing motivation to help local businesses with a sprinkling of creativity, the company managed to combat the relative torpor in the area ever since the drop in tourism resulting from Operation Protective Edge.
Similar efforts to think outside the box may go far in propping up commercial activity. Meanwhile, city hall, along with an affiliated NGO, MATI (The Center for the Advancement of Entrepreneurship), is mustering other means to try to tackle the recession in local enterprise. MATI CEO Golan Tobi has pushed in many directions in an effort to find quick and effective tools to ameliorate the crisis of small businesses that are in pressing need of aid.
“We have received funds from the UJA Federation of New York that will allow us to soon grant loans of up to NIS 100,000 at very favorable terms, specifically for small Jerusalem businesses that were hit hard by recent events,” Tobi relates.
He says his organization is doing everything to draw in additional sources of funding to provide more such loans in the near future to meet the growing demand for municipal assistance.
“Scores of businesses have already contacted us, and we know of at least a handful around the city center area that have shut down in recent weeks,” he says.
Meanwhile, MATI continues to subsidize a wide variety of training programs open to existing small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs who want to operate in Jerusalem.
“We offer courses in Internet marketing, bar and restaurant management, basic entrepreneurship and many other activities – all to provide tools for small business owners who create jobs for local residents,” says Tobi.
But there are those who see such municipality measures as falling short of what is necessary to keep small enterprise in shape during such dry spells. Ruthie, for one, expects city hall to cut the municipal tax (arnona) levied on small businesses out of a shared interest to bring local commerce back to life. It seems almost absurd, many say, that the authorities should turn a blind eye to the plight of local businesses and maintain taxes at their peak during such times.
As if these hardships weren’t enough, a large-scale infrastructure project planned for Nahalat Shiva in the near future threatens to exacerbate the hardships suffered by the street’s small shops.
“We remember the work on the light rail,” says Ruthie. “It dragged on for years, and meanwhile [small businesses] took huge losses and never received a shekel from city hall. A simple construction project on this street that should take a few weeks to complete will drag on for months, and as usual we bite our tongues and pay the price quietly.”
THEN THERE are independent and spontaneous initiatives of local residents who have answered the call of their neighborhood businesses and made it their own personal (some would say patriotic) duty to go out to their favorite bars and restaurants in a show of support. One such initiative is an online campaign called Eatifada, a culinary pun on “intifada.” Its objective is to bring Jerusalemites out of their homes rooms and back to the local eateries.
The Facebook group that spearheads the campaign features photos of local participants dining at one Jerusalem venue or another, each challenging a friend to surpass him with an even fancier meal and post a selfie online as proof. The campaign, which kicked off last week, already has more than 1,000 members on Facebook. So far, dozens have answered the challenge and told the world about it on social media.
Apart from the considerable contribution to local business made by these hungry denizens, the hype created around Eatifada has brought the distress of these businesses to public awareness and encourages Jerusalemites to go out and show their support – by “fighting terror with their appetites” as the man behind the campaign, Eitan Morgenstern, puts it.
“Terrorism wins only if it succeeds in keeping Israelis at home out of fear. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he asserts.
In this respect, difficult times like these bring out the best in Israeli society. The social cohesion and sense of community that such campaigns embody demonstrate the resilience of Israelis to terrorism or any attempt to break the country’s spirit.
As a city that more often than not stands in the spotlight of the conflict, Jerusalem faces an acute challenge to its residents and local businesses. But ultimately, Jerusalem will again prevail and continue to thrive as a vibrant cultural center, safe and open to people of every race and belief.
“We’ve been through much worse,” Ruthie says, “and we’ll continue with our normal lives, no matter what.”