A Conversation with a Falafel Vendor

Aaron Simons

As I turned down towards Jerusalem’s Ben Hillel Street, a familiar scent floated through the air.

“What would you like my friend?”

Now I don’t often skip meals, but circumstances meant that I had missed lunch. It was early evening and I was gripped by a belligerent hunger, the sort of hunger that demands your attention and doesn’t let you walk past a falafel stall without putting up a fight. I’m a sucker for falafel after a three course meal, let alone in circumstances such as these.

“Go on then. Falafel in pitta please. With all the salads.”

This chickpea temptation was the produce of a kind-looking Mizrahi man, probably in his mid-50s, wrapped up in a scarf and hat against the sharp Jerusalem cold. He refused to serve me the lukewarm falafel sitting under his heat lamp, rolling some fresh mixture instead. Falafel, he insisted, was best served hot.

“So what brings you to Israel?”

“I’m doing some research” I explained. “I’m investigating how British Zionism reacted to the Holocaust.”

He raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the radio in the corner. My Hebrew wasn’t good enough to make out what was being said, but tone alone made clear that the radio host was delivering a harsh invective. I realised that it was international Holocaust Memorial Day.

“The right are complaining. He’s attacking the left. He says that the left keeps comparing the right to the Nazis, by saying that the new law is like forcing the left to wear a yellow star. He’s saying that this is an abuse of the memory of the Shoah.”

In Jerusalem, I imagined, this was a popular radio show. Jerusalem is not a city on the left.

“Do you agree?”

“The right are always complaining. They never admit their own faults. I’m not sure the new law is a good idea. But the left are always exaggerating and talking like the right is the world’s biggest evil.”

I thought about offering my own opinion, but I figured that his would be far more interesting. Caricatures of Israeli politics are so easy to find, but this was a rare opportunity to hear the unfiltered views of a native Jerusalemite.

“And what about you? Where are you, left or right?”

He shrugged sheepishly.

“If I am being honest, I am on the right.”

I put on my most convincing blank face, but he saw straight through it. He could see my disappointment.

“Not the right like that, not the right that is always in the news. Not like the guy on the radio. I’m on the centre-right. I believe in peace, I want peace. I was there with Rabin in the 90s. I was on the streets with him, I believed in him and in the end of the conflict.

But since then things have changed. The Arabs, they do not want peace. They see this as a religious war, this isn’t about land or politics to them. Look, if an Arab wants to stand outside my shop and talk or smoke, he can. But if a Jew were to go to Bethlehem or Hebron and stand outside without the IDF there, he would be dead within 10 minutes.

It is sad. Things are much worse now. I want to be on the left, but I look around today and I can’t be, so I am centre-right. Maybe one day there will be peace. But not today.”

Much has been made of the rise of the Israeli right. Academics, analysts and journalists debate the ideological influence of Jabotinsky’s Revisionism, the left’s historic racism towards Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, the secular-religious divide, and the impact of sustained exposure to terrorism on Israeli society. Anti-Zionist polemicists argue right-wing dominance reflects a society dedicated to West Bank settlements, violence, and racism.

But this was not a settler, a religious radical, or a member of Lehava. Nor did this Jerusalemite mention religious tensions or Ashkenazi condescension. The rise of the Israeli right is perhaps less complicated than it first appears. Would-be Israeli moderates and peaceniks are gripped by one single, powerful, narrative that took root in the early 2000s and continues to resonate strongly today. Many Israelis simply believe that the Palestinians do not want peace.

It is not a narrative that I think tells the whole story, nor is it one that I completely agree with. But I can see where it comes from. Even West Jerusalemites live in a world where the occupation feels distant but Palestinian violence feels immediate. Rightly or wrongly, Israelis read their recent history as one where offers of peace were returned with nothing but increased violence: Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposals resulted in the second intifada, the Gaza withdrawal lead to Hamas rockets and tunnels.

The dominance of the Israeli right may not be that complex at all. In a political spectrum that places security at one end and peace at the other, Israelis vote for hawkish parties because they simply believe they have no partner for peace.

My new friend was right on one thing though. Falafel is definitely best served hot.