In line for coexistence

Most customers in the Rami Levy store in Gush Etzion speak positively of Jews and Arabs shopping together.

Rami Levy 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Rami Levy)
Rami Levy 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Rami Levy)
As the throng of cashiers gathers around the customer service desk to schmooze on a quiet Sunday morning, the banter exchanged is constantly changing, often mid-sentence, between Hebrew and Arabic.
Welcome to Gush Etzion’s Rami Levy supermarket, a microcosmic glimpse of what true coexistence might look like one day between Jews and Arabs whose daily lives in this part of the country are often intertwined.
Opened by the Jerusalem-based supermarket giant Rami Levy in 2010, the grocery store is the largest around, offering a reasonably priced shopping experience to all the area’s residents, whether they are Jewish, Muslim or Christian. In fact after only a few minutes in the store, it is impossible not to notice the diversity present both among the customers and the employees.
Jewish shoppers from the nearby Gush bloc communities including Efrat and Alon Shvut are busy making their way through the aisles among well-dressed Muslim and Christian Arabs from Hebron and Bethlehem. At the same time, Arab butchers are slicing meat and chicken for both religious Jewish women with their heads covered in scarves waiting in line alongside Arab women in full hijab attire.
Levy, who runs the country’s third-largest chain of supermarkets, says he decided to open a Gush Etzion branch “because I saw that the need existed for a supermarket in the area that could offer low prices, and to show the world that Jews and Arabs can live together.” He adds that he is proud of the mutual respect he sees when visiting the store between workers and their colleagues and between the shoppers themselves who come from a variety of backgrounds.
Ovadia Levy (no relation to Rami) has been with the supermarket chain for over 17 years and has been the Gush Etzion store manager since its opening day on July 15, 2010. He says that there was a degree of tension between his more than 100 employees, approximately 80 percent of whom identify themselves as either Muslim or Christian Arabs, when the store opened. “Today,” he says, “we all work together and are all truly friends.”
Former Gush Etzion regional council head Shaul Goldstein, who recently left his post to assume the role as CEO of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, was very involved in the negotiations to bring the supermarket to his area.
“At first,” he admits, “there were extremist elements living under my jurisdiction who thought this was going to be a disaster. They asked, ‘how are Jews and Arabs going to stand in line together?’ But from the beginning I said that the only way to strengthen our existence is to recognize that we have neighbors and have mutual needs and interests.”
Goldstein says that on the day the store opened in 2010, he gave a tour of the supermarket to several European diplomats. “Behind the meat counter there was a Jewish Chabad oleh from China working with an Israeli Arab from Jerusalem and a [Palestinian] Arab from Bethlehem. One of the diplomats was astounded at this sight and said his government would probably fire him if he reported the encounter, since they would never believe his tale of coexistence.”
Goldstein also recounts an incident when, as mayor, he was shopping at the store with his children in preparation for Shabbat. While waiting to check out, he started playing peek-a-boo with an Arab child in the arms of his father. “The father got emotional and started to cry,” says Goldstein. “It meant a lot to him that we were both part of this unifying experience.”
Eaman Ab-ajamiah is a Muslim woman from the Dheisheh section of Bethlehem and works as a cashier at Rami Levy. She strongly believes that “there are many people on both sides [Arabs and Jews], they really want peace.” She adds that “we all came from Abraham and we are really all one family living here.” Ab-ajamiah says that it is comfortable working at Rami Levy, and one days she hopes to use the money she saves up to pursue her dream of studying to become a journalist.
While most of the customers encountered during a tour of the store speak only positively about Jews and Arabs shopping together, not everyone is convinced, admitting that they are not completely comfortable with the concept.
A (who didn’t want to use her full name at the risk of being labeled as extremist), is a 30-something immigrant from New York and has lived in the Gush for over a decade. She says that she shops at Rami Levy several times a week and while she hopes that Jews and Arabs will find a way to coexist both inside and outside the supermarket, she feels “an underlying sense of discomfort knowing it’s not reality. The bottom line,” she says “is that I don’t think Arabs should be shopping here. I feel uneasy and threatened. I wish it wasn’t true, but that’s how I feel. And I don’t think it’s right that I should feel threatened in my own supermarket. I think there is a certain satisfaction that they are allowed to safely shop in our supermarkets, but we can’t go into theirs because it’s not safe. It’s a lie for people to say that all of this is great.”
Hindy Snow, a resident of Elazar, agrees that sometimes she feels overwhelmed by a large Arab presence at Rami Levy, especially before a major Muslim holiday when the store is packed with non-Jewish shoppers. But her biggest concern seems to be, in her words, “overpricing.” She says that sometimes she finds products to be marked higher than in Jerusalem supermarkets. She explains that the store essentially has a monopoly, since it is the only major supermarket in the area. Overall though, she is very happy to have Rami Levy in the Gush. She is complimentary of the management and is especially thankful for the store’s convenient hours, finding it a big plus that it is open on Saturday nights.
Goldstein admits that “while the supermarket itself might not change the world, bring an end to terrorism or stop extremists from hating other peoples,” he believes the way toward peace is to “build relations with your neighbors, between simple people, since governments might keep fighting forever.”