Corridors of Power: No business, as usual

The economic situation and the light rail works have led downtown merchants to a state of desperation.

light rail 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
light rail 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'It's hard to be a Jew," Shalom Aleichem once wrote. But being a Jew and a merchant is apparently even harder. Over the years, the term "merchant" has been neglected in favor of the more dazzling "businessman," but reality is never too far behind any disguise. Being a merchant is apparently not an easy endeavor. Their mercenary nature, real or imagined, receives far more attention than the various problems they face, whether it is the security situation, the economic crisis or the usual frustrating bureaucracy. As far as the modern-day merchants of Jerusalem are concerned, the three aforementioned problems are their daily reality. After the devastating years of the intifada came the no less devastating years of the light rail works and, at least according to their leaders, they are the hardest-hit sector in the city. So now that we live in an era that has organized merchants' committees, the inevitable has happened. The usual Jewish urge to split has already given birth to several representatives - and we ain't seen nothin' yet. And with schism comes radicalization. Several merchants told "Corridors" that radical plans to amplify the struggle are being planned. One of these radical acts has already taken place. Last week, a kiosk owner cut his wrists in front of dozens of passersby at the main entrance to city hall (he originally planned to do it before jumping from the sixth floor). His act, he later explained to Deputy Mayor Pepe Allalu (Meretz), was one of desperation in the face of what the city's merchants call the harsh attitude of the municipality's business licensing department toward them. But the real story of the merchants' hardships lies somewhere else. Following the terrible years of the intifada, the launching of the light rail project dealt another harsh blow to downtown businesses. Many didn't make it and had to close. After the intifada, a special fund was set up to help downtown merchants. Once calm and security returned to Jerusalem's streets, the fund was shut down. But in the wake of the roadworks downtown, many businesses again found themselves in economic distress. The municipality, however, was reluctant to renew the arrangement for fear it would set a precedent. "What was acceptable during times of war such as the intifada was considered unacceptable in times of economic difficulties," explains the head of the of city center and Mahaneh Yehuda administration, Uri Amedi. Instead, what the merchants' committee obtained was a special committee created by the municipality and the company doing the light rail works to find solutions. But solutions were not forthcoming. "After almost eight years of meetings," says the head of the Mahaneh Yehuda merchants' committee, Shimon Darwish, "which led to nothing, we announced that we had enough and that we would resort to tougher actions if nothing was done." Mayor Nir Barkat decided to react immediately and paid a visit this week to the shuk, where he heard calls for action, not words. Amedi suggests that the problem be divided in two parts. "We have to increase revenues on one hand, and compensate those who didn't make it on the other hand." Free-of-charge cultural events are being held in the city center and at the shuk to draw business downtown. But as for support for those businesses that aren't making it, things are not moving. The fear of the precedent of an administration or the government itself funding private businesses is so high, that for the moment nothing is being done on that issue. So, what can be done? Private funds are being considered, so far without any practical results. Meanwhile, among the merchants and senior city hall officials, the idea that the company building the light rail could be the first address to hand down some compensation is making its way to the people in charge, but here again there is no sign of any action being taken. Which brings us back to the threats of the merchants: "We know how to reach the MKs, the ministers, the media; and if nothing helps, we can still go on strike. Perhaps that will move a few things," concludes Darwish, who insisted that as far as Barkat is concerned, he and his fellow merchants have only words of praise. So next time you go downtown or to the shuk and find some shops closed, don't jump to the conclusion that the owners are enjoying some vacation. They might well have decided to stay home instead of opening their stores just to end the day without any income.