Women of the Mall: The Middle East Needs Less Praying and More Shopping

Looking for peaceful coexistence? Check out the Gap and the food court.

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There is a place in Israel where people of all faiths and degrees of religiosity coexist. Where everyone gathers for the same purpose, Where not only do they understand and empathize with each other, but help each other get through what can often be significant challenges and even minor crises.

It isn’t a place I go to specifically for this purpose, but when I do I inevitably leave feeling like the whole spectrum of humanity in this corner of the world - Israelis and Palestinians, from secular folks in T-shirts and jeans to devout fundamentalist draped in layers of clothing are, deep down, all the same.

That place is the mall.

In recent days, along with the rest of desperate parents in the mid-August doldrums, after day camp sessions have ended and the school year is still weeks away, after we’ve spent enough time at the beach or the swimming pool and simply can’t stand to have our kids stare at the television or computer screen for another moment, I head for the place that offers the easiest and most air-conditioned distraction with the least amount of inconvenience.

And so there we are, all in the same boat, pushing strollers or chasing toddlers or arguing with our teenagers as to whether they really need the most expensive backpack in the store. We are kind to one another: we hold the elevator for the stroller-laden, we offer one another items that may have been forgotten in a diaper bag, we nod with sympathy at kids throwing tantrums, and roll our eyes at one another when the service at the 'fast-food' outlets is ultra-slow. In a country that separates populations - the vast majority of us live in all-Jewish or all-Arab towns, our kids go to schools that divide them into ultra-Orthodox and secular, Arab and Jew, and we rarely even encounter each other in neutral activities like sports or the arts.

But at the mall - we are one. The atmosphere is partially due to the preponderance of women and children and the fact that adult men are in the minority - it is certainly due to the fact that the mall, with its shiny sterility and dominance of international brands feels somehow extraterritorial - the mall doesn’t feel like anyone’s ‘turf.’ It’s a different feeling than when an Arab woman in a hijab or a haredi man in a black suit walks the streets of Herzliya, or when I walk around Nazareth or Mea Shearim.

Even in the major Israeli cities, in the newly refurbished outdoor urban mall spaces, there is a similar friendly atmosphere, enhanced by the presence of foreign tourists - in Tel Aviv, you get the feeling in the northern and Jaffa port areas, and in Jerusalem, in the Mamilla mall.

It sounds rather absurd, doesn’t it? Capitalism and materialism is supposed to be the root of cold-hearted evil. We’re supposed to be most in touch with our deepest and most humane values when we worship and feel spiritual - and we’re supposed to reach new levels of understanding as we dialogue and debate political issues. But in reality, it doesn’t work that way.

A few days before my most recent mall visit, I visited the Western Wall/Temple Mount area in the Old City of Jerusalem at one of the holiest times of the year - the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul and the end of Ramadan. You could cut the tension in this sacred space with a knife. The Women of the Wall were separated from the ultra-Orthodox; Muslims were separated from Jews. There was heavy police presence everywhere. It was all about separation and division, not very spiritually uplifting, and utterly devoid of the interfaith harmony I felt while buying erasers and notebooks in Office Depot.

It’s a long hot summer in the Middle East, not just for us parents trying to keep the peace, but for the folks trying to make peace - the photos from the recently renewed U.S.-sponsored peace talks show faces that don’t look particularly cheery optimistic and the reports don’t sound very promising.

My advice to John Kerry: When you all start to lose hope for peace, get away from the conference tables and hold the next round of talks in the stores and food court of my local mall as you watch the Jewish and Arab kids frolic together in the Gymboree. You can bridge the diplomatic gaps in front of the Gap. Trying this may not solve the deadlock on settlements or disputes on prisoner release, but it should recharge your batteries and help the negotiators believe that peace is at least possible.

Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
A mall in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

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