Shopping: The True Glue That Holds Israel Together

Nation-building and the army have taken back seat to consumerism as the one unifying Israeli experience.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Shopping truly brings together birds of different feathers: Arab women and an ultra-Orthodox family shopping in Ramle.
Shopping truly brings together birds of different feathers: Arab women and an ultra-Orthodox family shopping in Ramle. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

There was no meat sizzling on grills, special synagogue prayers, or state ceremonies, but hundreds of thousands of Israelis were out celebrating a special day November 27. Decades after it was invented in American, that celebration of crass materialism, Black Friday, has arrived in Israel.

Israelis didn’t celebrate it with quite the same gusto as Americans. No store employees were trampled to death and no video clips have emerged on YouTube of shoppers punching each other out over gets the last vegetable steamer on the shelf.

Still, at least one market research firm says sales were up by almost a quarter on Friday November 27, compared with their daily average the rest of the month. Retailers unabashedly held Black Friday sales, even though there’s no Christmas for which Israelis need to be buying presents and no day-after-Thanksgiving holiday to spend hour-after-hour filling shopping carts.

To call Black Friday in Israel a case of creeping Americanization would be a misnomer. Israeli shoppers also happily celebrated another consumer holiday – China’s Singles Day, November 11. But it does testify to creeping consumerism.

Even that is a misnomer. Israeli consumerism barely existed 25 years ago, but developed fast, measured by such events at the opening of the first enclosed shopping mall (1985), Israel’s moving into the ranks of high-income country as defined by the World Bank (1987), the first McDonald’s (1993) and the first Ikea (2001) and the the cost of living protests (2011), which turned middle-class consumerism into a voter issue.

The great melter

Still, consumerism is as its heart an American phenomenon. The European, Chinese and Israeli middle class are committed shoppers, but it is America where the idea that shopping is not just a necessity or a casual pastime, but the core of human existence.

It would be too easy to attack the vulgarity and values of Black Friday shopping and the rampant consumerism it represents. But let’s give its Israeli version credit where it’s due.

Once, building the country was a shared value. For a long time, and even now to some degree, the army served as the great melting pot, putting everyone in a uniform and instilling them with army culture that then went on to become Israeli culture.

Today, ultra-Orthodox, orthodox and secular Jews and Israeli Arabs live in separate towns and neighborhoods and send their children to different schools. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab don’t serve in the army; the others do. Each group dresses differently and often has their own culture heroes, political leaders and role models. But once they find a parking place and pass through the metal detectors at the entrance to the shopping malls, then all Israelis become one.

Shopping truly brings together birds of different feathers: An Ethiopian woman and an Arab man in the Ramle market.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

We may disagree about the Palestinians and settlements, public observance of the Sabbath, whether Bibi is a villain or a hero, or Israel is first a democracy or a Jewish state, but shopping at supermarkets, downtowns, Ikeas and malls is the one place where Israelis of every stripe can and do come together, all differences set aside for the sake of a mutually shared interest in buying. Whether they wear a shtriemel, veil or microshorts, everyone can agree that that 2,190 shekels for an 43-inch LED television set by LG is a good deal (sorry, folks, that was the price at Avi Sofer Electronics, but the deal expired Sunday).

The malls let everyone in, they don’t charge different prices for Ashkenazim and Sephardim, they offer goods for every taste, no questions asked or objections raised.

Americans like to think its freedom and democracy are the glue that holds Americans together even as the country – not unlike Israel – was created by waves of immigrants speaking different languages, practicing different religions and representing hundreds of different cultures. The idea that they all came “yearning to breathe free” is such a part of the American myth it’s etched at the foot of the Statute of Liberty.

But freedom and democracy don’t create a common culture. On the other hand, consumerism and its values easily cut across political and cultural differences, bringing the huddled masses and wretched refuse together for a shared experience amid store shelves and shopping-mall food courts.

It would be sacrilegious to propose razing the Statue of Liberty and replacing it with a Walmart greeter in a t-shirt etched with the words “How can I help you?” but it would speak a greater truth.

Israel’s consumerism remains far short of the gold standard set by America. Public holidays still retain their original values, rather than being excuses for three-day weekends of extended shopping sprees and pitchmen to dress up as George Washington or Uncle Sam to tout specials.

Unlike America, prices for consumer goods in Israel are high, even if they are lower than they were 25 years ago. Store clerks don’t pretend, as their American counterparts do, that they really could care less about your purchase and American-style no-questions-asked return policies would quickly bankrupt an Israeli retailer.

The average Israeli still runs an overdraft at the end of the month and a recent survey found that nearly 90% of Israeli parents help their adult children financially on a regular basis. Israelis shop enough to make malls the great nation's great melting pot, but the middle class doesn't have the resources to match American-style shopping till your dropping – and we should be grateful for that.

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