Intermingling in Mamilla

A personal, lighthearted look at the section of Jerusalem where people of every background and stereotype come to enjoy themselves.

Father and daughter at Mamilla mall 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Father and daughter at Mamilla mall 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Summer was in the air at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall, where the open-air pedestrian walkways, shops and outdoor cafes were crowded with shoppers of all descriptions. Weeks of clouds and rain had passed. A warm sun gleamed onto palegold Jerusalem stone, providing a stunning backdrop to an unusually colorful and bustling scene.
I was about to have brunch with a friend; we were waiting to be seated on a terrace where tables overlooking the Old City were in great demand. All at once the spot we had our eye on was snapped up by two chic young Arab women. Their heads were covered in designer scarves and their wellfitted jeans and accessories were upscale.
They were seated next to a haredi family in their own distinctive attire. And next to them was a table full of middle-aged American tourists in cargo shorts, souvenir Tshirts, and a clutter of cameras, GPS gadgets and fanny-packs.
I glanced around and saw that no one was paying attention to the Muslim women or to the many Arab shoppers passing by. Nor did anyone stare at the haredim – men in black hats or black yarmulkes, women in long skirts, with wigs covering their hair. In Jerusalem, like nowhere else, you can figure out what people believe in by the way they dress.
But no one around us seemed to notice or care what anyone else was wearing – or believing. Jimmy Carter’s pejorative phrase for Israel, the “apartheid state,” flashed incongruously into my mind.
THAT SAME night it was my good fortune to have dinner with some South African friends including Rev. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Hedding actually fled South Africa in the 1980s when the government was on the verge of arresting him for his outspoken opposition to its racial abuses. He quickly moved his family to Israel.
I described the scene at Mamilla and asked, “So could that have happened in South Africa during the apartheid years?” “No way,” he laughed. “Everything was separate. The blacks had separate toilets, separate drinking fountains, separate benches. In some places there was a curfew, so they had to get out of sight and leave the town to the whites after sundown. It was like the American Deep South used to be.”
“Could blacks eat in the same restaurant as whites?” “Never! When we traveled with a black man who was part of our church, one of us had to go inside the restaurant and order take-out food so we could all eat together in the car. Otherwise he would have to eat alone.”
“So what about Israel? What’s your reaction to the ‘apartheid state’ label?” “When I hear apartheid used in regard to Israel, I think it trivializes the word. In fact, the harsh reality was that 40 million black people were dehumanized, robbed of their dignity and treated like absolute dirt.” He shook his head in frustration.
“They had no rights and no representation in the government. To trivialize apartheid like that is an insult to the black people of South Africa.”
On the way home, I suddenly remembered another vignette from Mamilla. I had rushed into the cosmetic store to make a quick purchase before leaving. I was in a hurry and there was only one clerk – a pretty Jerusalem girl wearing rather dramatic makeup. She was assisting two fashion-forward Arab women in silk head scarves, stylish trousers and well-tailored jackets. The three were having an animated discussion – in English – about eye shadow and eyeliner colors. The only disagreement between them had to do with hues: teal or olive green? Luminescent or matte? There was no way I was going to be waited on anytime soon. The clerk was trying out a new spring palette on one of them, testing the colors on her hands as she applied them while they all chattered nonstop.
As I left, I encountered a group of African pilgrims whose identical yellow caps told me they were from Nigeria. They burst into a gospel song as they made their way to the Jaffa Gate. People smiled and took their picture. An art display of Bible-story sculptures graced the plaza. Cellphones rang, horns honked on the nearby street and people of every age and description laughed and talked and celebrated the glorious weather.
And so it was, in the charming and controversial city of Jerusalem, eternal capital of the land of Israel. Many who love the little Jewish state rejoice in her goodness and beauty. Many who seemingly hate it, participate in events such as the global annual Israel Apartheid Week.
You’d think the hate-mongers would shop around for a new label. “Apartheid state” is so 1980s.

The writer has authored and co-authored more than sixty books, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in California and Jerusalem.