“What is Barack Obama coming for anyway?”

“Don’t you want there to be talks [between Israelis and Palestinians]?”

“The talks won’t bring peace.”

“You don’t think there can be a settlement?”

“Let’s cut to the chase: Can you [the Arabs] accept that we [the Jews] should be here [in Israel/ the Middle East]?”

“That’s not what is under discussion…”

“But that’s the underlying issue: Are you prepared to accept us here?”


With that, the ba’al habasta (market-stall owner) turned to his customer, who had patiently followed the exchange summarized above, with a look of weary triumph that said, in effect, “I rest my case.” The customer — this writer — countered with, “Will you weigh my tomatoes now?”, while the other party to the conversation, a Palestinian Arab from East Jerusalem, got back to his job as a sanitation worker for the municipality, collecting the empty boxes and cartons from the market stalls.

Welcome to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, where attempting to resolve the generations-long dispute between Israelis and Palestinians as a prelude to buying fresh vegetables is considered perfectly normal. The kind of interaction quoted above — which was conducted in a very friendly manner, despite its frankness — is an everyday occurrence there. The day it took place could have been just another day in Mahane Yehuda, which has long been a landmark feature of central Jerusalem.

Spread over several parallel streets and connecting alleyways, partially covered and partly still open to the elements, the market is probably the only — and certainly the best — place in which to see, meet, hear and taste the entire, unbelievably broad spectrum of humanity that lives in or visits Jerusalem. By the same token, it is the best place to come to grips with what makes Israelis and Jerusalemites of all stripes tick — and, through observing and listening to them, to get a much deeper understanding of the forces at work in Israeli society.

Markets are about discovery and dissemination of information. According to economic theory, the interaction of many buyers and sellers in a free market creates a process termed “price discovery.” This process works as well — nowadays, perhaps better — in Mahane Yehuda for fruits and vegetables as it does on Wall Street for stocks and bonds. But the outdoor markets of great cities across the world, especially the souks and bazaars of the Middle East, are also agents of discovery regarding — and avenues for dissemination of information about — the social, religious, cultural and political issues and trends that shape the cities and societies that they serve.

Hosting a President

It could have been just another day in Mahane Yehuda and Jerusalem — but it wasn’t. It was Wednesday March 20, and the city and its 800,000-odd inhabitants were readying themselves for a three-day-long disruption to their normal patterns of movement and activity, as Jerusalem and Israel played host to Barack Obama on his first visit to Israel as President of the United States. Even for a city as inured to having visiting VIPs paralyze its regular rhythm as Jerusalem, Obama’s visit was widely viewed as an untimely imposition, coming just a few days before Passover and hence at the peak of the busiest shopping week of the year for the retail sector as households prepare to host seder meals.

In addition to Obama and his entourage of aides, diplomats, bodyguards and others, there were many hundreds of journalists in town to cover the presidential visit. One item on the media schedule organized by Israel’s Government Press Office was a visit to Mahane Yehuda market — presumably with the aim of providing the journalists with a small but concentrated dose of how ordinary people live their lives in Jerusalem. If so, the choice of Mahane Yehuda was wise: This is where a visitor prepared to keep his eyes and ears open, and to clear his head of any ideological baggage, can learn more — and more quickly — about Israel and the issues it faces than perhaps anywhere else in the country.

The natural temptation for guides and visitors alike is to emphasize the dramatic historical events that have dominated Israeli history. Mahane Yehuda, by dint of its position in central Jerusalem, has witnessed and, all too often, experienced these directly. Especially after the Six-Day war in 1967, when Israel annexed East Jerusalem and imposed its concept of a united Jerusalem on the city’s Arab population, Mahane Yehuda became a prominent focus of Arab-Jewish interaction. This was centered for the most part on business and commerce and also included employment of Arab youngsters by Israeli stall-owners, but the interaction took darker forms as well.

Nowhere else in Israel has been the scene of as many terrorist attacks as Mahane Yehuda, with repeated attacks during the period of intensified Palestinian-Israeli violence between 2001 and 2004 — including three in a single month. Boaz Zidkiyahu, one of the veteran vendors in the market, boasts proudly that “the ability of Jerusalemites in general, and of Mahane Yehuda market in particular, to take the hits from terrorist attacks and keep going, is much greater than anywhere else in the country.”

But the real story of Israel, and certainly of Mahane Yehuda, should be sought not — or at least not only — in the periodic outbreaks of violence that puncture its history, but rather in the socio-economic development that took place between those outbursts. This is actually on display everywhere in the market and its environs — if you know what to look for. Hopefully, it’s what the visiting journalists saw and heard — and if so, their visit was probably just in time. The market is already very different from the uniquely Jerusalemite human mosaic that it was only 10 or 15 years ago and, if present trends continue, within a few years it will hardly be representative of anything Israeli or specifically Jerusalemite.

Bridges over Troubled Waters

Not many Arabs, whether Palestinian or Israeli, do their shopping in the market, or shuk as it is called in Hebrew (souk in Arabic). Most of Jerusalem’s Arab population frequents the markets and other retail outlets on the eastern side of the city — which, for all the talk on the part of successive Israeli governments, Jerusalem mayors and their municipal administrations, remains clearly divided into western and eastern sections. These are not halves, because the Jewish west has a much larger population than the Palestinian east. But, as the conversation quoted above illustrates, Arabs are also a feature of the shuk, whether as employees working the bastot (stalls) or as municipal workers — or as customers.

Where Mahane Yehuda plays a unique role is as a bridge across the other dividing line that crosses Jerusalem. This is an intra-Jewish one, a cultural chasm that separates the mainly ultra-Orthodox (haredi) north of the city from the mainstream population in the south, which includes secular, traditional and modern-religious Jews. This socio-religious division has become increasingly apparent in recent years, as the haredi population has exploded and, by consequence, expanded into and ultimately taken over neighborhoods that were formerly mixed or predominantly non-haredi.

The market itself has developed in the shadow of the haredi/non-haredi divide. Mahane Yehuda market runs between Jaffa Road, the central thoroughfare of downtown Jerusalem, and Agrippas Road, which runs parallel to Jaffa Road but to its south. Its centrality, coupled with the fact that it runs on an east-west axis, makes Jaffa Road the physical dividing line between the haredi north and the mainstream south. However, in addition to the cultural and religious gulfs between the two Jewish populations, there is also an economic divide. Haredim are, for the most part, poor and typically have a much lower average standard of living than their non-haredi counterparts (but not than their Arab co-citizens of Jerusalem).

This socio-cultural-economic reality has caused Mahane Yehuda to morph into two different markets. At its northern end, abutting Jaffa Road, the market is still comprised overwhelmingly of traditional-type bastot selling food: fresh fruit and vegetables, cheap confectionery and patisserie products, and some fishmongers and butchers. This is what might be called the down-market market: It isn’t really cheap, because prices in Israel are generally high, but it’s a lot cheaper than most neighborhood shops, while the quality of produce available is generally much higher.

As you walk southward through the market, you move steadily upmarket. The southern end of Mahane Yehuda has taken on a totally different character in recent years. Few shops there sell fresh produce — and their prices on many items are between 50% to 100% higher than those of their down-market peers a few minutes’ walk — make that jostle, on Thursdays and Fridays — away. But most of the shops here are no longer in the fresh produce business. Those that sell food do so in much fancier premises and, indeed, their wares are also classier, not just pricier — for example, imported and high-end domestic cheese purveyed in fromageries, rather than simple, cheap cheeses sold by shops only one remove (physically and business-wise) from the bastot selling fruit and vegetables.

The upscale market now boasts coffee shops, several shops selling herbs and spices, a cigar shop and even one or two jewelry boutiques. Even to the untrained eye, the clientele at this end of the market are obviously a very different mix than the mostly haredi customers in their distinctive black garb at the Jaffa Road end.

The Family Business

Almost at the Agrippas Road end of the market are two shops almost opposite each other, operated by the Zidkiyahu brothers. Yaron, 54, and Boaz, 52, are the two senior members of the five-brother clan — and the story of how this family developed from selling watermelons to become a widely-recognized brand operating through a growing chain of outlets, is a metaphor for the market as a whole, just as the transformation of the market captures, in a microcosm, the currents of change in Israeli society.

It is also the antidote to the “Israel as a global high-tech powerhouse” hymn that has become the standard story about the nation’s economy. Unlike the sophisticated young men with their MBAs and cutting-edge apps that populate Israel’s ‘Silicon Wadi’, Yaron and Boaz Zidkiyahu have no formal education beyond high-school — but they and their business could well serve as a case-study for business students, alumni and many others.

The family’s Israel story began when Yitzhak Zidkiyahu, Yaron and Boaz’s grandfather, emigrated from Kurdistan to what was then Mandatory Palestine in 1938. He made his home in a Jerusalem neighborhood where his compatriots had already established a community, built a house and, together with his brothers, bought a small shop in the Mahane Yehuda market, in which they sold fruit and, in the summer, watermelons.

Yitzhak’s second son, Mordechai, was born in Jerusalem and educated at the nearby Alliance high school operated by a French-Jewish philanthropic organization — and then joined his dad in the shop. The young Mordechai had ambitions that extended beyond fruit, but when and how these were realized was determined by the historical developments that form the backdrop to the Zidkiyahu saga.

Boaz takes up the story, with comments and corrections from Yaron along the way: “The first big expansion came in 1967, after the Six Day War” — which, it must be noted, changed Jerusalem from a backwater to a rapidly-growing city — “when Dad decided to expand into pickles. These were sold from the family’s single shop, so that the product range grew within the same premises.”

But that did not last long. The late 1970s saw sweeping changes in the physical, financial and managerial environment of the market. The Jerusalem municipality constructed a roof over the main pedestrian thoroughfare of the market, making the shopping experience much more pleasant in both summer and winter. Meanwhile, Israel adopted a value-added tax (VAT) and this obliged the stall-owners to undertake a massive modernization, including electronic weighing machines rather than weights and scales as well as proper cash registers that recorded every transaction, to enable accurate book-keeping and the payment of both income tax and VAT.

Far from hurting Mordechai and his brothers, modernization seems to have spurred their development. “In the 1980s,” Boaz says, picking up the tale, “they began offering cheeses and prepared salads, but all on a small scale.” The process continued and accelerated in the 1990s. “The market infrastructure underwent another upgrade: The roof was strengthened and improved paving and drainage was installed — and this spurred the stall-owners to invest and expand their own operations.

“Dad and his brothers rented another store, opposite the one they owned. This allowed them to split their product range along dairy and meat lines — in conformity with Jewish dietary laws — and to broaden the range of products offered in each area.”

Failures and Successes

By then, Mordechai’s sons were in the business and soon in the driving seat. The family now made its first move outside Mahane Yehuda market — and found that strange environments were not always welcoming. “We opened a shop in the Malha mall — a large enclosed mall in the southwest of the city that was slated to be the upcoming commercial and retail center of Jerusalem. But we found that the clientele at the mall were different than our home crowd. The costs — rental, city taxes — were too high for the volume of business we were able to generate. After eight years we gave up there.”

Another direction, in several senses, was the brothers’ attempt to open a shop in the northwestern suburb of Kiryat Shaul, which was becoming a hub for government offices and professional firms. The initial plan was to relocate the store in the Malha mall to there, but that fell victim to opposition from other occupants in the building in which they had bought premises. Instead, they found a partner and opened a restaurant.

But with Yaron spending most of his time in the restaurant, Boaz was left literally to mind the stores in the market — and the long hours and pressure on them both became intolerable. This led them to restructure the whole business, including selling out of the restaurant and concentrating their resources on their “core” operation in the market, which they now expanded — inter alia by reintegrating their own brothers in the family concern. One, Shmulik, had moved to Kfar Saba in the center of the country, but the recession caused by increased violence in the early 2000s had sunk his shop. Another brother, Moshe, had been working for their uncle — i.e. one of Mordechai’s brothers — at his shop in Mahane Yehuda.

The forays outside Mahane Yehuda may not have been commercially successful, but they contributed to making the Zidkiyahu range of products known to and appreciated by a much broader customer base — not just Jerusalemites doing their regular shopping in the market. Israelis from around the country visiting Jerusalem — and even regular visitors to Jerusalem from all over the world –were in the queue outside the shop, especially on Friday mornings.

This recognition eventually led to an offer to the Zidkiyahus from Mega, one of the country’s leading upscale supermarket chains, to open in-store shops in Mega locations. This model, in which Mega takes a cut from the turnover but the Zidkiyahus have no burdensome rent weighing on them, seems to working very well. Three in-store shops are open already — two in Jerusalem and one in Modi’in — and more are set to follow.

Cloudy Future

But — as the cliché goes — “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” things are not so cheery. In fact, the way Boaz and Yaron see things, their situation has reversed itself, so that while the operations outside the market are expanding rapidly and the potential seems enormous, business in Mahane Yehuda is challenging and the prospects — for them and the market as a whole — are cloudy.

“We are not expanding here,” Boaz says sadly. “There was an opportunity to buy the store adjacent to the one we rent, but we deliberately let it pass. Why? Because of the changes that the market is undergoing, both for good and bad.”

“Look, this is not the market we used to know,” interjects Yaron, who feels the changes are far more skewed to the bad than the good, at least for them. “People used to come to do their shopping in the market, now it’s a tourist venue — they come, they eat, they go. That’s good for restaurants and coffee bars, but not for stores.

“The haredi market is also problematic, because they are looking to buy cut-price produce. We were always in the upper end of the market’s spectrum of customers, so that doesn’t speak to us.”

The major practical problem facing the market, according to the Zidkiyahus and other store- and stall-owners, is simple: Woefully insufficient parking is available in the area. Indeed, even access by bus has been sharply reduced by the conversion of Jaffa Road into a pedestrian mall on which a light railway is the only transport available. The vendors are sharply critical of the Jerusalem municipality’s policies vis-à-vis the market and respond to its promises to them with open disbelief.

The Mahane Yehuda’s veteran vendors, among whom Yaron and Boaz are in the front rank, will not let the market wither without a struggle. This summer will see elections for a new representative committee of store-owners which, Boaz says, “could considerably improve the situation — if it is strong and ready to fight.”

That would be in the best traditions of Mahane Yehuda. But the business decisions of the Zidkiyahus and the rationale behind them are the best evidence that the market’s glory days are probably over. Seemingly irresistible socio-economic forces are at work — the widening gaps between higher- and lower-income groups, the rise of hypermarkets on the fringes of big cities that offer cheap prices on fresh produce as loss-leaders to attract shoppers, and the increasing attraction of Jerusalem to an ever-growing flow of global tourists. These look to have a much greater impact on what Mahane Yehuda offers and to whom than the wars and terrorist attacks that the market and its community successfully weathered for decades ever did.