My kingdom for a pretzel

The facts get twisted in a Passover hametz imbroglio.

Palestinian girls pass a bread vendor in the Old City. Most Jerusalem street vendors do not have a license. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian girls pass a bread vendor in the Old City. Most Jerusalem street vendors do not have a license.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 In most places, a pretzel is just a pretzel, but it seems that in Jerusalem, a city of many faiths and tensions, a tasty baked twist of dough can become a catalyst for a political protest.
Peddlers are not a rare sight in this city. In fact, Arab peddlers selling their merchandise – particularly pretzels (here called “beigeleh”) accompanied by a sprinkling of za’atar and sesame seeds – have become a symbol of the Old City over the years. Farther to the west, peddlers are most often found in the city center (mostly on King George Avenue and at the plaza near Hamashbir department store), selling tablecloths and other household utensils before Jewish holidays. On both sides – and this is important to emphasize – most of the peddlers work without official permits from the municipality. Municipalitymandated inspectors whose job is to prevent such situations cannot control most of them, simply because there are not enough inspectors for such a large city.
That said, what happened during the intermediate days of Passover is a good example of how a simple lack of supervision can almost lead to an international incident.
City council member Arieh King (Bayit Yehudi), well-known for his radical right-wing positions, posted a status on his Facebook account announcing that thanks to his vigilant followers and his own efficiency, a grave case of public desecration of the laws of hametz (forbidden leavened products) had been stopped, serving as a warning for the future. King explained that he had called the city’s inspectors to stop an Arab resident, a pretzelseller, from selling hametz during Passover. King added that his action was intended not only to see that all residents respected the rules, but also to preserve the Jewish character of the Holy City.
It didn’t take more than a couple of hours for activists on the opposite side – mostly members of the Meretz Party (in the opposition at city council) – to react with furor to what city councillor Pepe Alalu called “a deliberate attempt by King to Judaize the Arab side of the city and cause political and religious provocation.”
Deciding that Alalu’s declaration might not be enough, the party’s local activists stood in front of Mayor Nir Barkat’s private home in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood and took a photo in which nine people wearing green Meretz T-shirts ate ostentatiously large pitot. Facebook was awash all that day with accusations and counteraccusations from both sides, until Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch (Hitorerut B’yerushalayim) bothered to check the facts behind the matter.
It turned out that King had crowned himself with a false achievement.
The Arab peddler whose pretzel cart had been confiscated didn’t owe his misfortune to the champion of Jewish presence in the Old City, but to the simple fact that two city inspectors had caught him selling without a permit. It was that lack of a permit – and not the nature of the merchandise – that lay behind the confiscations and the citation the peddler had received.
Berkovitch immediately posted the results of his investigation, drawing the ire of Meretz activists who said the city’s goal should be allowing its residents to make a living – that is, it should give permits, rather than deprive residents, especially Arabs, of their meager source of income.
The story did not end there.
Many members of the city council’s coalition – and the opposition – agreed that for whatever obscure reason, the city's supervisors showed a tendency to patrol more in the Old City, missing many Jewish residents and peddlers in the process who operated without any interference in the city center. The incident resulted in the formulation of a request for the city to deliver more permits, since it was better to collect funds through taxes than through penalties.
As for the hametz issue, there is nothing to be done but to remind everyone that since the days when Uri Lupolianski was mayor – that is, about six years ago – the court has permitted restaurants and coffee shops on the west side of the city to sell hametz as long as they do not show it ostentatiously. And in the Arab neighborhoods there has never been any prohibition. But due to this incident, a few Meretz activists had a highly publicized hametz picnic in front of the mayor’s residence, and a right-wing activist earned some notoriety, thanks to his ability to make facts more pliable and adapt them to his needs.