There’s a saying in the restaurant world that when the knives come out, the customers stay home. At many Jerusalem malls like Cinema City and First Station, restaurants are practically empty. And don’t forget the pictures on social media this week showing a deserted Mahaneh Yehuda market on Jaffa Road.
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Most restaurant owners Haaretz spoke to declined to give their full names; they sought to project a sense of business as usual, not wanting to help the media stoke the fear factor. Others said business was still fine — during the day, anyway.
Some said they had a great weekend with lots of tourists, and one added, “Every article like this only gets the public into a panic.” Others were only willing to be interviewed about food, not stabbing attacks.
One owner, from one of the city’s biggest restaurant chains, said the events of recent weeks weren’t the main factor; actually, Jerusalem hadn’t fully recovered from last year's Gaza war. In any case, he insisted that the television coverage had no bearing on reality – people were still out and about, shopping, living their lives. “And Jerusalemites, out of a feeling of solidarity, are even going out more than usual,” he said.
But the problem isn’t Jerusalemites not going outside, he said. It’s domestic and foreign tourists disappearing.
“Daily life is continuing as usual, but the government ministries are canceling conferences, events and forums in Jerusalem, and if they’re doing that, why shouldn’t the public cancel?” he said, admitting that customer numbers were declining.
“A lot more people die in car accidents,” he said. “But according to the media, Jerusalem is scarier.”
He also faults Jerusalem Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett for not looking after the interests of small businesses affected by the scare, and for focusing more on who’s allowed on the Temple Mount.
Fear of bulldozers
A., a bar manager in the city, says not much has changed in Jerusalem: Locals are used to the situation no matter what their politics. He says that during the Gaza war, the feeling was you had to be either brave or foolish to venture into the Old City.
“Every time you board the light rail, there’s some fear. It’s been that way for a long time and it will stay that way for a while. Bulldozers aren’t just another construction vehicle .... Not much has changed. Every Jerusalemite knows what places to stay away from,” he said.
“Jerusalem has been under threat for a long time and we’ve learned to live with it, but this time around work hasn’t been affected much. But it will be before long because the media keeps scaring people. For now, Jerusalemites are still in the mindset of not letting the situation change their routine, even if the tension has been around to some degree since 2001. We live in the shadow of terror attacks.”
Dror Babay, who runs the Black Bar ‘n’ Burger branch on Shlomtzion Hamalka Street downtown, notes a 50-percent plunge in revenues. On Thursday, two big events at the restaurant were canceled, six have been canceled for this week and about 15 events for this month. So far.
Babay, too, says the television reports are painting a false picture. “In the media, everything is made to look worse,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation and we don’t deny that, but to say people can’t leave the house? In any case, the mood is such that people don’t feel like going out to eat.”
It’s not an easy situation for restaurant workers either, Babay notes. Some are afraid to come to work and managers and owners give employees rides home in the safety of their own cars. He agrees that local residents are less fazed, but even they are sticking closer to home and not venturing to the main entertainment areas as often.
He notes that when he went to the Biblical Zoo on Saturday, it was empty on a day it normally would be crowded. “There’s a depressing atmosphere, but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.
Mulling things at Mike’s Place
In recent weeks, the talk among Jerusalem restaurant owners is that Tel Avivians have suddenly stopped coming. Either way, small-business owners, not the chains, are getting hit the worst. “We’re part of a strong and supportive chain, but what happens to people who don’t have the same kind of safety net?” Babay said.
The Jerusalem branch of pub chain Mike’s Place has been on Jaffa Road in the heart of downtown since 1992, so owner Reuben Beiser has seen his share of terror waves. But this time the mood is somewhere between hysteria and depression, he says. Groups from Ireland and France are still coming, but Israelis not so much.
“Of course the current situation is affecting everything, from the number of people coming to the pub to the final bill, because people are spending less, and the question is why,” he said. “We’re seeing the streets deserted at night, and we’re feeling the absence of the students who used to come here, whose parents are apparently forbidding them from going out.”
Beiser says that up to now, in times like these, the people seemed split between those who disappeared and those who made a point of going out and showing a presence. He wonders why, when buses were being blown up in Jerusalem in past years, the locals still came out. Today, a less drastic situation, people are staying home.
“It’s not fair to compare the periods, but it’s our responsibility as citizens to carry on with our routine, to go to work and go out for fun,” he said.
The pub has seen revenues tumble 50 percent in the past two weeks. “We’re a place where you could always find a tourist from Europe alongside an ultra-Orthodox or Arab guy, a place where everybody just wanted to relax and hear a little music or watch sports, eat and drink something. But that’s changed all of a sudden,” Beiser said.
“People can’t leave politics at the door. You try to cheer people up and suddenly there’s another stabbing. That’s the talk of the country right now, and we’re getting a little addicted to panic.”
Chef Moshiko Gamlieli of the restaurant Mona takes a more optimistic view. “At moments like this I actually feel a sense of connection among people, even if the situation makes me very sad,” he said. “Tourists have fled the Old City, but I think they’re still going to restaurants looking for some comfort and sanity.”