A pretty immoral meal can be found only a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv. It includes a patty of processed meat, a soft drink and fries (or onion rings for the cognoscenti) for 50 shekels ($13.75).
The sinful feeling that accompanies the meal doesn’t come from the high price or junk-food ingredients, but from the pleasure of contempt for international law. Where in the world can you stick your finger in the eye of the European Union, United Nations and international community by ordering a hamburger? As of today, only in the mall in the city of Ariel in the central West Bank.
The Ariel branch of Israeli chain Burger Ranch opened a month and a half ago, a polite woman at the counter informs me. Just this week it received its festive launch. The backstory: Five years ago, McDonald’s announced that it didn’t plan to open a branch in the Ariel mall that was about to be built, as part of its policy not to operate in the West Bank.
Its rival, Burger Ranch, realized that it doesn’t matter what the goyim say, what matters is what the Jews do. So it announced that it would open its own proud outlet in Ariel.
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Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, jumped at the chance and said he would show up to order the first hamburger. This week, while he was visiting the city for the opening of Ariel University’s new medical school, Bennett stopped in at the new restaurant and was photographed alongside a tray with his very own Ranch Meal.
This isn’t the first branch in the West Bank; Burger Ranch has a branch in Ma’aleh Adumim just east of Jerusalem. But it’s the first branch born in political defiance, the first to get a minister give his kosher stamp of approval, to go along with the medical school.
The road to Ariel always has surprises. The landscape changes so fast from the Ra’anana-Rosh Ha’ayin area as Samaria sneaks up on you with its hills, guard posts and green signs directing you to the Tapuah junction. And maybe warning you to flee back home.
The closer you get to Ariel, civilization arises once again – and nice posters for concerts by the pop duo Static & Ben El Tavori, performances by the Habima Theater, and Giselle by the Israeli ballet greet and calm you. They tell you that you’re really at home there.
At first glance, the mall looks like a regular mall in a small Israeli city with all the normal stores. The Burger Ranch is on the second floor, looking out over the impressive landscape of the hills of Samaria; the restaurant is smaller and more sinister than it seemed in the video posted by Bennett.
The employees are hard-working and nice, as usual. It’s clear they’re still learning their jobs and it’s important to them to represent the chain’s values – excellence, quality and an ostensibly reasonable price – while they’re learning and practicing with the customers. The wait is unreasonably long, but the other customers don’t look annoyed, and to be honest it’s hard to be mad at the friendly and smiling employees. If we have to wait, we’ll wait. The people of eternity aren’t afraid of a long journey.
A boy with a kippa tells the worker cleaning the floor: “I saw you on television yesterday.” She answers lethargically: “I wasn’t here yesterday.” The boy says it’s a shame she missed the television cameras, and she agrees.
Children are the thing in the West Bank. It’s hard to find a table at the Burger Ranch without at least two or three kids, with another one in a stroller. A woman with a head covering orders a children’s meal. The woman at the counter asks if it’s for a boy or a girl. It seems there’s a gift – a rubber ball with a picture of a monster – and she wants to know whether to hand over a pink ball or a blue one.
It’s hard to imagine the outcry and shaming that would happen if a Tel Aviv fast-food restaurant dared to genderfy a child’s gift – and if the gender spectrum had been capped at only two options. But in Samaria in the West Bank the mother pleasantly answers “boy” and receives a blue ball.
Finally, the meal arrives. Anyone expecting a spiritual uplifting of the rebirth of Zionism ends with disappointment with the first bite. The too-dry patty and the excellent fries give off an aroma suggesting normality – like the normality that swallowed Ariel into the Israeli mainstream. But still something in the atmosphere feels wrong.
Only at the end of my second circuit around the mall do I realize what bothers me about the place. It looks like a normal mall, but it’s not. It doesn’t have any foreign chains, or luxury or chic brands. It’s filled with Israeli chains like ZIP, WOW, Laline, Café Greg and a Japan Japan restaurant. Adidas and Zara are missing and always will be.
This exposes the nightmare scenario we can expect from the terror of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement: a country of mediocre brands and second-class chains. Nike and Lee Cooper will sell at (even more) extravagant prices on the black market, while Israeli chains like New Pharm, Fox, Renuar and lots of Burger Ranches will rule from Tel Aviv to Eilat – via Ariel.