Opinion

The Lessons of an Arab Pretzel Seller

The harsh reaction to a Jerusalem councilman who gloated after an Arab peddler's wares were confiscated was heartening, but most humiliations against the community fail to raise a similar protest

A pretzel seller in Jerusalem (illustrative).
Emil Salman

At the height of the Tisha B’Av fast on Sunday, Jerusalem Municipality Councilman Arieh King uploaded a Facebook post in which he reveled in his concern for Jewish Jerusalem.

“Jews, somebody’s making sure to maintain the Jewish character of Jerusalem,” King’s post read. “This afternoon, a [female] city resident contacted me after noticing an illegal stand at Jaffa Gate, a stand whose owner was selling pretzels and falafel on the main pilgrimage route to the Western Wall and Temple Mount, at the height of Tisha B’Av. You see the result,” he wrote, referring to a photo of confiscated pretzels. “As I promised, we ensured the law was enforced against the offender while contributing a little to the Judaization of Jerusalem. We made sure to somewhat protect the Jewish character and the feeling that you are living in/visiting a Jewish city. The stand with all its foods has been confiscated. Thank you to the municipal inspectors.”

Jewish activists support an Arab vendor after he was shut down on day of fastingHaaretz

>> Jerusalem city councilman boasts of 'judaization' after pushing police to shut down Palestinian pretzel seller

King apparently didn’t anticipate the flood of condemnations his post would spawn, including from well-known right-wingers such as Makor Rishon journalist Yehuda Yifrach. He commented, “Pointless, bad, inappropriate. What do you care that an Arab is selling pretzels?” (King subsequently deleted the post.)

In next to no time, the harsh response itself became the topic du jour, many seeing this as a ray of hope. Sure, no institutional entity reacted on the spot, but, look, gloating and humiliation are not popular. 

King may have hoped to surf the wave of religious nationalism sweeping the country, but his hopes were dashed. It blew up in his face. Gratuitous hatred on the anniversary of the temple being destroyed, throwing bread onto the ground – not in our national home!

There is indeed something to applaud here, although in view of the horrors of the ugly Facebook post, it’s difficult to imagine any other response. Still, it is hard not to wonder why similar protests – or even vaguely similar ones – are not voiced in light of the protracted humiliation routinely experienced by the Arab community.

Is humiliation only deserving of condemnation when accompanied by gloating? Throwing a peddler’s wares on the ground in front of him is indeed maliciousness for its own sake, but humiliation has many facets. Invasive profiling at the airport is humiliating; standing in endless lines at border crossings is humiliating; so is seeing your lands nationalized. Watching selfie-documented celebrations after a law is enacted that enshrines discrimination against you in the land where you were born is also humiliating.

Like in other cases, the answer always lies in two words: “security needs.” Sure, it isn’t nice to see a man stripped naked in public because he’s part of a collective, but it’s better than getting blown to bits with him. And at the border crossings, of course it’s horrible to see a father get humiliated in front of his son, but what are you going to do when they send terrorists in ambulances as well? And, of course, we feel awful positioning army units in homes where children are present but, well, war is hell. True, the Arabic language didn’t kill anybody itself, and communities exclusively for Jews don’t really advance the cause of security. But it’s a Jewish state, and you know what happens to Jews when there isn’t one of those.

The principle is clear: Jews are brought up to believe that life takes precedence. We might not agree to humiliation just for selling food on Tisha B’Av, but security? That’s another matter.

Another thesis might also serve here: That the desire for life supersedes the desire not to humiliate, plus a reminder that life can’t be taken for granted in our neighborhood. But the “anything goes” narrative in the case of an existential threat leads to dehumanization, which in turn leads to normalizing humiliation. Thus, under the guise of habit, this moral wrong persists when it isn’t necessary, when the security situation cannot justify it and, ironically, even when security officials warn that humiliation may be a catalyst for escalation and violence. It’s difficult or impossible to stop a person devoid of hope, fighting for his dignity, with nothing left to lose.

We can celebrate the reaction that King’s malignant words provoked. It was appropriate, and maybe taught the Jerusalem councilman a lesson. But we should keep in mind that humiliation is one of the greater evils against human dignity – even when not commemorated in photographs; even when painted in colors of existential survival in order to appease our conscience a bit.

We should avoid damaging human dignity even when genuine security needs arise. We should never nod or ignore images of people languishing in lines in the baking sun or winter cold. We must demand that something else be found rather than the humiliating security checks based on profiling. We should grasp that, even if everything isn’t our fault, the situation of the starving residents of the Gaza Strip is a ticking ethical bomb.

We don’t have to be experts on the human psyche or security to understand that humiliating measures exacerbate hate and the motivation to commit acts of terror. You do not need a PhD in philosophy to realize how wrong such actions are. We must remember this the next time we feel so good about ourselves because of a pretzel seller.