Well before noon, the multistory parking lot under the Azrieli Center is already filled to capacity. The line forming outside the dressing room at a popular clothing store in the mall above is almost as long as the one trailing out of the door of the nearby polling station in central Tel Aviv.
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With schools closed and most people off work, Election Day in Israel is not only an opportunity for responsible citizens to exercise their basic democratic right, but also a chance to take advantage of huge sales.
No longer just a celebration of democracy, it’s a day that has come to epitomize Israel’s thriving consumer culture. And for no better reason than that there aren’t many alternatives.
Whereas in the United States the big days for shopping and sales are Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day – in Israel, Memorial Day is exactly that: a somber day to head to military cemeteries, certainly not shopping malls.
On Independence Day, stores throughout the country are closed, with most Israelis seeing barbecuing as a far better way to mark the anniversary of the founding of the state. International Workers’ Day, what might be considered to be the Israeli the equivalent of Labor Day, is no longer a day off, and even when it was, few Israelis would have considered it appropriate to pay tribute to organized labor by engaging in that most abhorrently capitalist of all activities: the shopping spree.
Here at the base of the triple Azrieli skyscrapers, a major Tel Aviv landmark, the stores are packed to overflowing, with thousands of Israelis exploiting a rare opportunity to spend an entire day shopping – and to save some serious shekels while they’re at it. With polling stations open from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., they have lots of spare time on their hands.
The shoppers dashing in and out of stores and riding up and down the escalators are a picture of multicultural Israel: Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, young and old. Young teens are taking advantage of the day off school just to hang out here, as good a place as any.
Young mothers wheeling carriages are trying to maintain a semblance of sanity with all the kids home today, and bored-looking husbands are swiping their cellphone screens, waiting for their better halves to make up their minds in the dressing rooms.
Signs outside almost every shop beckon customers with enticing Election Day savings. "Up to 50 percent off on select items." "Buy goods worth 400 shekels [about $100], but pay only 300 shekels.” "Buy one item and get the second half price." Plus VAT exemptions and other deals, gift vouchers in exchange for purchases, and so on and so forth.
As one young woman tries to control traffic outside the dressing room of the Azrieli branch of Forever 21, the American fashion retailer, she describes the scene playing out in front of her as a “madhouse.”
“It hardly ever gets as busy as this," she says, "and certainly not before noon in the middle of the week.”
At the Delta underwear and pajama store, a young sales attendant is bracing for the worst. “This is calm,” she says, trying to maneuver through the crowds to the other side of the store. “Just wait until the afternoon, once people have finished voting and have eaten lunch. It’s going to be a total mob scene.”
Tzomet Sfarim, one of Israel’s biggest bookstore chains, was offering special discounts to Israelis who can prove they’ve voted already or that they at least plan to.
“How are we supposed to prove it?” asks a young woman, out shopping with her mother.
“We take your word for it,” responds the man behind the cashier.
Another sales attendant behind the counter wants to know whether the young shopper paying for her book has voted for the same party as her mom.
“Surprisingly, we hardly agree on anything, but we ended up voting for the same party,” reports the mom. “I’ve known for weeks which party it would be for me, but my daughter over here just decided last night.”
“I’m really curious now. Can you tell me whom you voted for?” the sales attendant asks the daughter.
When the daughter announces her party of choice, the sales attendant responds in a whisper: “I love you.”