All politics is local. That old adage pinned to Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the United States House of Representatives, reverberated on a brisk Tuesday afternoon in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.
It wasn’t the Trump executive orders that were troubling Shimon Levy. Nor was it other causes of worry like the probes into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behavior or the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile test.
No, what bothered Levy was the three-meter-tall pile of refuse outside his cheese stall in the shuk’s open street, a result of the ongoing general strike launched Sunday by the Jerusalem Municipality and Mayor Nir Barkat.
“They can all go to hell,” said Levy, referring to Barkat and his strike nemesis, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. But he reserved his most choice words for the mayor, who he claims orchestrated the strike for his own gain.
“The mayor is at fault here – the city gets our municipal taxes, they get everything.
Why is he striking? Why not sit down and talk with Kahlon face-to-face and solve the problem? This is only hurting the residents of Jerusalem,” said Levy, adding that business has been crippled since the strike started.
“Of course it’s affecting business. Monday, there was no light rail, there was nobody here. But what does Barkat care?” he asked.
Shoppers, residents of the neighborhood and tourists alike maneuvered among the mountains of discarded boxes and rotting fruits and vegetables in a surreal business-as-usual attempt at normality. A quartet of tourists from Switzerland ate lunch at a table outside a shwarma stand on the corner of Jaffa Road against the backdrop of a pile of rubbish the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
One shopper determined to keep to her routine was Esther, from Ramat Beit Hakerem, who stood outside a paper goods store with a shopping cart bursting with groceries.
“I come here every week, strike or not. This isn’t going to stop me, you just have to be careful you don’t slip on something and land on your head,” she said, adding that she wasn’t following the details of the strike causes closely.
“It seems like this happens all the time, and in the end, the government will pay whatever Barkat wants,” she added.
A short distance away, fruit and vegetable vendor Nissim expressed sentiments similar to his fellow vendor Levy.
“It’s a catastrophe here. The system is guilty and the mayor is guilty. Every year he demands millions from the government and every year he still comes up short,” he said.
“I hope that they’ll reach a compromise, go back to work and Jerusalem will begin looking like a city, not like garbage,” he remarked.
Nissim and Levy must not have been briefed by Nino Peretz, head of the Mahaneh Yehuda merchants committee, who had just returned to the shuk from an hour-long meeting with Barkat and other city officials.
“We, the vendors of the shuk, are in favor of Nir Barkat and we think that this strike is justified,” he said. “We are suffering now in Jerusalem in order to secure a better future for our capital city.”
The energetic Peretz darted back and forth from his main base at the Rak B’Smachot mini-market to the handful of stalls he owns in the shuk. He was greeted, glad-handed and hugged by fellow vendors as he coordinated strike efforts.
“I need you to be at this meeting at 2:30,” he told one colleague, while answering a call on his cellphone from a city hall official.
“At the meeting this morning, we received data laid out like a poker game hand in black and white on the table,” he said. “The truth is that the Finance Ministry is cutting into Jerusalem and it can’t continue. All the vendors understand and support what’s going on. It’s painful for us and we’re paying from our pockets, but it’s for a better future for Jerusalem.
We’re sharpening our nails and are going to the end with Barkat,” he continued.
That doesn’t bode well for the residents living in or near the shuk, where the strike has turned their neighborhood into an uninhabitable mess.
“I have no plans to sleep at my place again until this strike is over,” said Nora, whose porch overlooks a mound of refuse.
Malka, a college student who lives around the corner from the market, said that she was staying put, and despite the filth she said she understands the motives behind the strike.
“If you want to get something done, you have to make noise – and that’s not just the Israeli way,” she said. “Whatever methods you need to use to start a revolution are justified.
But it is terrible and disgusting here.”
A group of young Chinese tourists walked gingerly through the open-air street, stopping every few steps to take photographs. Annie, an English speaker in the group, said that despite the noticeable trash obstacles, they were unaware there was a strike taking place.
“Actually, we didn’t know there was anything unusual going on,” she said. “We thought it was like this all the time.”