We’ve arrived! Well, sort of. Last week the big Israeli grocery chain “Rami Levi” opened up a beautiful, new, normal-sized grocery store right here in Gush Etzion. It’s huge! It’s clean! It has wide aisles! Tons of parking! Great prices!
Of course, nothing could be so simply ‘good’. Right away the nay-sayers started up. Complaining about the damage it will do to all of the little grocery stores was first. Okay, they are right. A wonderful grocery store with longer hours, better prices and a bigger selection will cause damage to the little stores. I honestly feel bad about that, and will make efforts to shop at the little stores for the little things. However, were we supposed to stop progress because the iceman was going to be put out of business by the refrigerator? So yes, we feel bad. But I doubt anyone will feel badly enough to pay more and get less…
But wait, there’s more. You see, the new Rami Levi is not in a neighborhood. Meaning it is not behind one of the guarded gates that protect the neighborhoods in Gush Etzion. Meaning that anyone can go there. Meaning – get ready – that Jews and Arabs are in Rami Levi together.
Before it had even opened its doors, emails debating the value – even legitimacy – of a Rami Levi in Gush Etzion were flying back and forth. Heated discussions were held with people citing a wide range of reasons why there should or should not be a new supermarket. The reasons run the gamut of a sense of nostalgia and loyalty to the smaller stores to the both rational and irrational fears that shopping with Arabs will cause. My favorite was the objection to shopping alongside Arabs who are boycotting our products to which a sane resident replied, “The Arabs who are shopping in Rami Levi are not boycotting Jewish products; they’re buying them.”
You have to understand that it is not really racism that drives people here, but rather fear. Personally I have no problem with the fear. There is security checking every car and every person entering. It’s basically the same way things are set up all over the country. That’s not to say that some disgruntled person isn’t going to go to the canned goods section, arm themselves with chunk-light tuna and green beans, and start lobbing them at shoppers. I just can’t live my life looking over my shoulder for flying tuna cans.
I actually found it rather amusing to see religious-looking Jews working and shopping alongside religious-looking Arabs. In fact, thinking about it more, I suppose there is a lot of irony there as well. While boycotts are forming, flotillas are floating, and psychotic world leaders are spouting their anti-Jewish and anti-Israel venom, the Jews and Arabs of Gush Etzion are sampling mozzarella side by side, passing each other in the aisle, and waiting on line together. While governments are arguing the benefits of the frozen Jewish construction – which hurts Jews and Palestinians alike – Jews and Arabs here are browsing the frozen-goods aisle.
In fact, I found the atmosphere in the store quite convivial. People were polite to one another and I did not feel any underlying tension. Tension? Smiling baggers were packing up my groceries. You can’t go shopping in Israel and have your groceries packed for you and still feel tension. Around here that’s almost as luxurious as getting a massage. Meanwhile one of the Arab employees and I chatted about where “in Gush Etzion” we lived, and I thought it was kind of interesting that he referred to his village as being in Gush Etzion.
Of course, modern and beautiful as it is, there are some aspects of the old-fashioned Middle Eastern shuk that we just can’t get away from. Perhaps this can best be demonstrated by my stop at the deli counter. While one worker was helping me, a colleague of his pointed to my neck. Alarmed, I felt my neck, and it felt perfectly normal, with my favorite necklace secure as always. I looked at him questioningly to which he asked, “How much do you want for that necklace?” I was dumbfounded. Then I realized that while the wheels of progress are rolling, sometimes they just might roll a little backwards.
Laura Ben-David is the author of numerous articles and the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. For more from Laura Ben-David see her blog at http://www.blog.aliyahbook.com.