Balagan over the Balabasta

Unlike previous years, hundreds of residents and visitors will not be streaming into the shuk until all hours this summer.

Balabasta festival in Jerusalem (photo credit: ITRAVELJERUSALEM TEAM)
Balabasta festival in Jerusalem
About three years ago, a new concept in the realm of popular culture burst onto the scene in Jerusalem. The new concept turned the city’s central market, Mahaneh Yehuda, into a sophisticated cultural venue, where merchants, customers and audiences of all strata mingled with new trends in culture.
People came from far and wide to experience this new wonder – a market transformed into a cultural attraction.
Uri Amedi, director of the Lev Ha’ir neighborhood council and father of the concept, knew right from the start that he was taking on a heavy challenge. Merely three years after the shuk had been the scene of heinous terrorist attacks, it transitioned smoothly and quickly into a locale for entertainment, shopping, hanging out at the most “in” coffee shops and restaurants, accompanied by music, street theater and a lot of fun.
Amedi was confident that he had found the perfect formula to mix business with pleasure to put Jerusalem back on the map of must-see spots for Israelis and foreign visitors alike. The international media – from Europe and North America – fell in love with the concept, and items about the marvels of Mahaneh Yehuda became part of the regional stories broadcast by foreign and special correspondents, sometimes superseding the usual unflattering political and military items aired about the region.
With the success of the concept came the money and the support. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a success story (including some who didn’t like the idea at first)? The supporters included the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Tourism Ministry and private foundations.
The peak was the Shusterman Foundation, which included the shuk events in its prestigious Jerusalem Season of Culture program. The highlight of the shuk events was the Balabasta, a series of biweekly outdoor evening events during July and August, which included music, jugglers, food and puppet shows, to bring people to Mahaneh Yehuda, even if they weren’t planning to buy any produce.
The first wave of opposition to Balabasta came from the haredi representatives on the city council. They were already fielding complaints from their constituents regarding the municipality- sponsored music festival in the Old City (which included concerts in churches!) and the food festival in the Old City, which included non-kosher restaurants, also sponsored by the municipality. Some concerned rabbis and haredi activists said that the Balabasta brought “an unacceptable high risk of promiscuity between men and women, not to mention the waste of time instead of studying Torah.”
Amedi had expected a backlash but assumed that the appeal of the event would calm the opposition – and indeed, many haredi men, women and children packed the shuk until the wee hours and enjoyed the Balabasta.
But then came the real blow – strong opposition from some of the shuk’s merchants. They claimed that the project interfered with their business – that people came to see actors and listen to music but didn’t buy a peanut, and they refused to host it for 2012. Almost 300 merchants signed a petition against the Balabasta. This was soon countered by 160 other merchants who supported the project and asked for its resumption this summer. But they couldn’t match the large opposition.
As it stands, the project has been canceled.
Despite many efforts, mostly behind the scenes, it seems that Balabasta is but an echo in the streets of Jerusalem.
One might assume that this is a simple case of something that is either good or bad for business, where merchants choose what suits them best.
However, in this case, what lies at the bottom of it is something totally different.
Fierce battles, though mostly waged silently, have been going on for months between two warring merchant factions of the shuk. Roughly, it is a battle between Amedi’s supporters and his opponents. Amedi has made a few mistakes in his management of the neighborhood council and, as a result, most of the shuk merchants want to dissociate themselves from it.
What could be more effective than to destroy Amedi’s major project in the framework of the neighborhood council in order to make a point? Amedi himself is not so important. What matters here is whether this city will learn to not mix personal interests with the public’s needs. So far, the opponents have won. Hundreds of residents and visitors will not be streaming into the shuk until all hours this summer.
Perhaps they are right and it won’t harm their business. It’s not certain, though, that it won’t damage the image of Jerusalem.