Cornering the supermarket?

Some people fear that the Jewish and Arab employees of the new Rami Levy supermarket in Gush Etzion could be heading down the aisle in more ways than one.

Supermarket 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Supermarket 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Upon entering the new Rami Levy supermarket in Gush Etzion, one is witness to what many only dream about in the Middle East: Jews and Arabs shopping and working side by side in perfect harmony. Jewish cashiers check out both Jewish and Arab customers, and Arab men stock the aisles and cut your meat. Where else do settlers and Palestinians get along so well? The new store, which opened just three weeks ago, is the latest of the 21-store supermarket chain. The supermarket is located between Efrat and Alon Shvut at the Gush Etzion intersection, and both Palestinians and Jews feel comfortable shopping there.
But all is not as idyllic as meets the eye.
Some residents of neighboring towns oppose the employment of Palestinians in the store – which is not located within a Jewish settlement – and are even threatening to boycott the supermarket.
According to the organization Lehava, a Hebrew acronym for The Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land, Rami Levy stores such as these can lead Jewish girls into the arms of Arab men. One of the directors of Lehava, who identified himself only by his first name – Bentzi – says there have been at least three instances of Jewish employees becoming romantically involved with Arab employees in the Betar Illit, Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan branches of the supermarket. One of the cases allegedly involved a married woman who left her husband and moved to an Arab village, and has since returned.
Bentzi says Lehava works in conjunction with Hemla, a dormitory for women who are involved in relationships with Arab men, which tries to coax them to return home, providing them with support and counseling. The dormitory currently has more than 25 women of different ages and backgrounds, the youngest being 14.
According to Bentzi, when Lehava contacted owner Rami Levy and told him of the situation, Levy expressed sympathy with the cause and said he was trying to prevent further instances. But Lehava says Levy has not taken any concrete steps toward that end.
Suggestions such as employing men and women in separate departments or hiring only same-sex employees were not adopted, according to Lehava.
But Levy says the claims are unfounded. “It’s all lies.
None of it is true,” said Levy last week. “I don’t know who these people are, and I don’t understand why their baseless claims are being publicized.”
Levy says he was never contacted by the organization, nor has he ever heard of any of his employees becoming romantically involved.
“We discourage these types of relationships.”
The Rami Levy chain was established in the Mahaneh Yehuda market in 1976 as a small store, which has since grown to enormous proportions in recent years, owing its success to its low prices. Levy hypothesizes that the claims are coming from small business owners who have been hurt by his chain’s growth and success, something he feels bad about.
Levy says he is opposed to intermarriage and has even provided separate employee dining areas for men and women in some of his branches. “We have a synagogue in every store, and I am more cautious of intermarriage than Lehava is,” he says. When asked what measures he would take if he heard about an instance of an impending intermarriage between two of his employees, Levy said he would speak to the hearts of both parties involved and try to persuade them against it.
Other protests came from residents of nearby Efrat, who approached Levy and requested that he employ only Jews in the new store instead of Palestinians, even though Jewish employees might be more expensive.
Nomi Baruchi of Efrat, who met with Levy on the matter, says most supermarkets in the area do not employ Arabs, citing an Arab employee involved in a terrorist attack as the reason. Baruchi urged Levy to answer the call of his fellow Jews who are crying out for work, even if they demand slightly higher wages than Arab workers. In addition, she says the Jews who are employed there feel uncomfortable being surrounded by Arab workers, In response, Levy agreed to employ any Jew fit for the job.
How do the neighboring residents feel? Avi Rosenfeld of Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim, a Rami Levy shopper, says he understands Levy and says that business is business.
“This is simple economics. He opened the store without any political considerations,” says Rosenfeld. “It’s in a central location for both Jews and Arabs. If you shop in Talpiot, there are also plenty of Arabs there.”
Rosenfeld estimates that people from at least six neighboring Jewish towns shop at this branch.
But others, like Sarah B. from Efrat, say they don’t feel safe in the store, even as they continue to shop there. “When we walked in, my kids asked me if it was safe to come in here, since we educate them to be cautious of Arabs.” She added that although “there are a lot of Jewish workers in the store, there would be even more if the Arabs weren’t employed here.”
But all in all, she says, Arabs work in Jewish houses and in their towns, and it’s not realistic to expect them not to work in Rami Levy. As for shopping, she says she feels torn, being attracted to the low prices and nearby location but is worried about the possible danger.
A.J. from Alon Shvut is not as sympathetic. “You can see how the Jewish girls mix with the Arabs in the store; it’s not modest.”
But her friend is of a different mindset, saying, “If we can’t shop together, then there’s no hope. And it’s the opposite of a security risk: No Arab would target a store that’s so full of Arabs.”
A quick glance around the new store confirms that one thing is not in dispute: business at Rami Levy is booming.