Analyze This: The politics of Pessah hametz

Unfortunately for the mayor, his strategy backfired.

bread 88 224 (photo credit: )
bread 88 224
(photo credit: )
On Jewish Quarter Street, the small alleyway that connects the residents' parking lot of Jerusalem's Old City with the central square of the rova, the Jewish neighborhood rebuilt and resettled after 1967, stand two unmarked blue metal doors separated from each other by a few meters. Today, as thousands of observant Jews streamed down Jewish Quarter Street on their way to the Western Wall and other sights in the Old City, one of these doors was open, and the other closed. Had any of them entered through the open door they would have seen a sight to horrify them - row after row of pita rolls and bread loaves, sitting there warm right after coming out of the industrial baking ovens lining the walls. This is the Salamieh bakery, which has operated for decades (if not longer) at this spot, along with another Arab-owned bakery right down the street. These two bakeries, which during the rest of the year openly display their goods of leavened flour in plain view, were one of the triggers of the so-called "Hametz [leavened flour] law" that has become particularly controversial this Pessah. Because these are two of the very few Arab-owned bakeries in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, and their display of bread products during Pessah week was considered offensive to the local Jewish residents forbidden by religious law to eat them, a prohibition was drafted in 1986 that declared "No merchant will display a hametz product in public for purchase or consumption." It did not prohibit the sale of hametz - a problematic proposition in a city that is at least one-third Muslim and Christian - nor did it distinguish between Jewish and Arab-owned business, since that would not have solved this particular problem, anyway. So Salamieh's ovens continue to bake bread during the holiday just out of sight in the Jewish Quarter, although down the road the doors of the other Arab bakery are shut tight. "The owner closes down during Pessah because he's being paid by the local rabbis to do so," says a veteran employee at the My Burger restaurant next door - where no buns of any kind, even the matzo-meal variety, are offered during Pessah. "He even became fully kosher... when they offered to give him business as a supplier to some of the yeshivot in the area." Sounds like a good deal - which leads one to wonder why something similar wasn't done at the Salamieh bakery. Understandably, none of the workers there on this day feels like discussing the issue with a journalist. But to judge from comments made a few years ago by its owner, Naif Salamieh, in a radio documentary on Jerusalem broadcast on the US National Public Radio (NPR) for which he was interviewed, staying open during Pessah seems to be a matter of principle. At one point the narrator declares: "He [Naif Salaimeh] offered to take me on a walk through the Old City to show me his family's bakery over in the Jewish quarter. 'We kept it open even though we are not making profits.' An unprofitable bakery is the price to pay to maintain his family's presence in the city. 'We are here from hundreds of years,' he says... Naif's boyhood home is now a Jewish-owned antiquities shop selling what it claims are genuine statues from the Temple in Roman times. It stirs strong emotions when he looks through the window of his former home. 'I feel hatred sometimes,' he says." The one thing that the shift manager at Salamieh's bakery is willing to say is that business has been brisk this Pessah. That surely accounts for the two prominent yellow signs that have been mounted on both sides of its door, each bearing the same message: "Please refrain from eating hametz (bread and other leavened food) in the Jewish Quarter during Pessah." Across town, at Chili's Pizza in the center of Jerusalem, selling hametz in the form of pizza slices during Pessah is also a matter of both principle and profits. "This is our busiest week of the year; we do triple our normal business," says Allison Lahav, the 34-year-old Canadian-born Israeli who co-owns it. In front of her restaurant she has put up a wooden screen to block the view inside through its windows from the sidewalk. "I always tried to make it less visible during Pessah," she says. "I even offered to pull in my tables from the street if I was guaranteed there would be no protests against us, but that didn't happen." Haredi harassment against her establishment over Pessah has been a constant since she opened Chili's eight years ago; what become new last year was city inspectors fining her and three other nearby eateries for supposedly breaking the hametz law. Why now? "Election," she says, referring to the Jerusalem mayoral contest later this, and the wide-spread assumption that current city hall incumbent Uri Lupolianski is looking to shore up his haredi support before going to the polls. Unfortunately for the mayor, his strategy backfired when Judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Tzaban ruled earlier this month that the Hametz law prohibition against public display of leavened flour products doesn't include their sale inside privately-owned businesses like Chili's. And the result of city hall's new-found fervor against hametz? "I'm doing even better business than usual this Pessah; people are coming in and saying they even came in from out of town to eat here," says Lahav - even as she nervously checks live updates via a cellphone camera of a haredi demonstration currently in progress just a kilometer or so away in Mea She'arim, directed against her kind of business. And a few kilometers in the other direction, on Jewish Quarter Street, Salamieh's bakery keeps churning out pitot, hot and fresh. [email protected]