Palestinian Israeli Equality and Normalization: The Case of Rami Levy Supermarkets

In 1976, I founded Rami Levy HaShikma, a wholesale supermarket chain. Our company’s philosophy and operative policy to employ Israelis and Palestinians and treat them equally reflects our principles and ideals.

The first Rami Levy supermarket location

The first Rami Levy supermarket location, founded in 1976 in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. (Wikipedia)

Rami Levy’s high quality and attractively priced products draw Palestinians and Israelis to shop at our supermarkets. Rami Levy stores sell products that are difficult to find in Palestinian stores. Palestinians have indicated that they prefer Israeli goods like snacks, chocolate, and dairy products to their Palestinian competitors.1 Others say they specifically prefer Israeli produce from settlements, such as Medjool dates and watermelons grown in the Jordan Valley, and ginger root from the Jewish community of Tekoa in the West Bank. Palestinians have been undeterred by the higher prices of the settlement produce compared to similar produce from Palestinian competitors.2 One Palestinian storeowner in Bethlehem told the Israeli Ynet news site in 2012: People love and buy Israeli products. While there are local dairies that sell their products in the Palestinian Authority, lots of people prefer to buy Tnuva products simply because there is better supervision and they want to feel safe in what they buy. It has nothing to do with politics. When we buy a product from you [Israelis] we know it is under supervision and only made with fresh ingredients.3 A Palestinian wholesaler added, “If my clients see that the product has Hebrew letters on it or if it says the product is from Israel, they are sure that it is better.”4 At Rami Levy locations in the West Bank, Palestinians constitute approximately 30 percent of our customers, and Israelis constitute about 70 percent of shoppers. Palestinian shoppers are attracted to Rami Levy supermarkets for the same reasons that Israelis prefer to shop there – low wholesale prices; variety; clean, organized stores; and friendly staff. We also cater to Muslim shoppers by having large displays and discounts on dates during the fasting month of Ramadan, because many traditionally break their fast with dates each evening. Furthermore, unlike other Israeli supermarkets, Rami Levy’s policy of employing Palestinian workers alongside Israelis attracts a diverse customer base.

Rami Levy as a Preferred Employer

I began employing Palestinian and Israeli Arab workers at the first Rami Levy location, a stall in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that opened in 1976. Arabs were among my first employees. Those employees continue to work for Rami Levy Hashikma – our supermarket outlets – and many have seen their careers flourish with the company. The first employee I hired 35 years ago was a man named Ibrahim, an Arab from east Jerusalem who has remained at Rami Levy and currently works as our director of logistics. One of our warehouse workers is from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Azaria and has been part of the Rami Levy team for 34 years.

Other Arab Israeli and Palestinian employees who have since joined the Rami Levy team have also been promoted to upper management positions. Rami Levy does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or religion when hiring and promoting employees. All employees, Palestinians and Israelis, are treated equally and receive equal benefits. Salaries are based solely on one’s position and performance. My goal for all Rami Levy employees is to have the same opportunity to succeed. This goal that can only be realized if the principle of equality is implemented in all aspects of the company.

Rami Levy supermarkets employ some 4,000 workers. Of these workers, 2,000 are Jewish Israelis and 2,000 are a combination of Palestinians, Arab residents of east Jerusalem, and Israeli Arab citizens. In addition to ensuring that all Rami Levy employees receive equal wages and benefits for equal work, regardless of ethnicity, I insist that our employees work as a team. As the owner and CEO of Rami Levy, I maintain that all workers are equal in terms of rights and opportunity. This includes me, the CEO of Rami Levy. Here, the most senior manager is equal to the lowest-level employee. This approach prevents conflict and promotes mutual respect.

This policy and philosophy have created a “melting pot” of employees at Rami Levy stores.

Former Israeli diplomat Lenny Ben-David noted of his shopping experience at Rami Levy, My checkout cashier was a Jewish woman from Kiryat Arba of Moroccan descent; a blue-eyed Muslim woman from Halul, near Hebron, worked at the cash register next to her; while a member of the Bnei Menashe tribe from India who had formalized her conversion to Judaism operated the cash register behind me.5 Employment at Rami Levy is in high demand among Palestinians for various reasons.

Rami Levy workers in the Gush Etzion branch

Rami Levy workers in the Gush Etzion branch, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

In the Palestinian Authority-controlled parts of the West Bank, a Palestinian manager or teacher earns on average 2,000 shekels (570 U.S. dollars) a month, far below the Israeli minimum wage. In a job at a Palestinian supermarket, monthly salaries are even lower.

Moreover, Palestinian businesses regulated by the PA are not required to provide employees with social benefits such as pension-fund contributions. Palestinian business owners are not required to pay property, excise, or sales taxes. Nor are businesses required to reimburse employees’ transportation costs or to provide compensation or insurance for work-related injuries. At Rami Levy, however, a full-time Palestinian employee earns 4,000 to 7,000 Israeli shekels a month (1,142 to 2,000 U.S. dollars) plus full medical and social benefits as stipulated by Israeli law. Palestinian managers earn more.

At face value, salaries should be high in the Palestinian areas. First, Palestinian employees working for Palestinian companies do not pay income taxes to the PA. Second, Palestinian salaries do not deduct for health insurance, taxes, or pensions, and do not require any sort of reimbursement for transportation. Although the PA has the right to tax, as per the Oslo Accords and domestic legislation, it chooses not to exercise that right.6 Ironically, however, Palestinian nongovernment salaries amount to a mere 25 percent of Israeli salaries. It would appear to be in the interest of Palestinian business owners to provide higher salaries to their employees, thereby replacing the safety net that the PA does not provide. Yet Palestinian society remains highly stratified with little chance for career advancement or a rise in income for the average Palestinian worker. This is due in large part to the mismanagement, corruption, and stagnation that characterize the Palestinian economy.

Employment at Rami Levy is in high demand among Palestinians for various reasons. In the Palestinian Authority-controlled parts of the West Bank, a Palestinian manager or teacher earns on average 2,000 shekels (570 U.S. dollars) a month, far below the Israeli minimum wage.

Furthermore, the PA has failed to support its lower-income workers. In 2012, the PA (not including UNRWA and other NGOs) received $775 million in foreign aid.7 This money could be used to ease the burden of the Palestinian worker, provide benefits, or supplement low domestic salaries. However, the PA does not take these actions.

Instead, recent reports and studies in Israel have revealed that the PA provides monthly salaries to the families of Palestinians who have been killed or captured, while carrying out terror attacks.8 These government stipends can reach 12,000 shekels per month, nearly eight times the monthly Palestinian average salary. These government “terror subsidies” vary according to the severity of the attack, the length of the prison term, and whether the terrorist was killed in the attack.

Rami Levy supermarket in Gush Etzion

Rami Levy supermarket in Gush Etzion, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

Such monthly subsidies from the PA range from 1,200 to 11,000 shekels, not including other supplementary stipends. In 2016, the PA paid more than $300 million (1.1 billion shekels) to incarcerated and released terrorists and their families, as well as to families of terrorists killed during an attack.9 The PA has the capability to provide stipends and benefits to its regular working residents, as opposed to rewarding and incentivizing Palestinians for engaging in violent actions against Israel.

One of the unofficial incentives or benefits that Rami Levy Hashikma provides Palestinian workers is a better alternative to participating in the “terror business.”

Therefore, one of the unofficial incentives or benefits that Rami Levy Hashikma provides Palestinian workers is a better alternative to participating in the “terror business.”

Supermarkets and the Risk of Terror

Although Rami Levy stores were not targeted by terror attacks during the First and Second Intifadas, which broke out in 1987 and 2000 respectively, terrorists perpetrated stabbings at our Gush Etzion and Shaar Binyamin locations in the West Bank during the 2015-2016 terror wave.10 Rami Levy’s Arab workers condemned the attacks. They have expressed to me that terror damages and destroys the peaceful coexistence that we have collectively strived to maintain at our stores. Although many media outlets asked me if I would stop hiring Palestinian workers following these attacks, I reassured them that employing Palestinians at Rami Levy is a policy intended to prevent, not encourage Palestinian terror.11 Overall, Palestinian employees have reported positive experiences working at Rami Levy. Hanadi Elias, a cashier from Bethlehem working at Rami Levy’s Gush Etzion location, spoke positively about her job when interviewed by Dutch journalists in 2013. She described how working at Rami Levy gave her an opportunity to learn Hebrew and make Israeli friends. She added that it had been her dream to have a career at Rami Levy.12

Palestinian Denormalization as an Obstacle to Employee Harmony

Attempts by the PA leadership and some NGOs in Ramallah to promote the denormalization of Palestinian-Israeli relations threaten the peaceful dynamic at Rami Levy. Palestinian leaders, many Ramallah-based political NGO groups, and their Western supporters argue that the coexistence found at Rami Levy stores is only the result of Israeli economic and military control of the Palestinian territories. This is false.

Many media outlets asked me if I would stop hiring Palestinian workers following these attacks, I reassured them that employing Palestinians at Rami Levy is a policy intended to prevent, not encourage Palestinian terror.

A number of years ago, I tried to expand Rami Levy stores with an Arab partner into areas controlled by the PA. Nevertheless, I was told that the moment I put up the name Rami Levy, the store would be burned down, because I was Israeli and Jewish. True, the current reality is complex. Palestinians are welcomed at any Rami Levy store on either side of the Green Line, but Israelis cannot enter the Palestinian-controlled areas without risking their lives. For now, the PA is not accepting us with love, though we are welcoming them with open arms.13 However, despite the warning that Rami Levy stores would be “burned down” if opened in the West Bank, the opposite has occurred in all of our West Bank stores in areas under Israeli security control. Rami Levy supermarkets have become the most popular supermarket for Palestinian consumers. We know this from the data we receive from our stores in the Barkan, Maale Adumim, and Gush Etzion areas.

Unfortunately, in 2010, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas enacted a law making it illegal for PA residents to buy products from Israeli settlements. In practice, the PA has extended this prohibition to any Israeli store in Israeli-protected parts of the West Bank or within Israel’s 1949 armistice lines.

Rami Levy sells products sourced all over Israel and internationally. Rami Levy is also headquartered in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Palestinians have been arrested or fined for shopping at Rami Levy because the PA views our products as “settlement” products and all branches of Rami Levy as “settlement” enterprises. Therefore, many Palestinian shoppers at Rami Levy stores have reported that they have hidden or camouflaged Rami Levy’s signature pink bags when they shop there, replacing them with plain white shopping bags.

Similarly, BDS and denormalization activists have protested at Rami Levy stores, intimidating and even threatening our Palestinian and Israeli workers and shoppers. For example, in October 2012, about 80 Palestinian activists and about 20 foreigners forcibly entered the Shaar Binyamin branch of Rami Levy, chanting slogans like “Out, out, settlers” and “Five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a fascist state,” and holding signs that said, “Boycott the occupation and its products.”14

Rami Levy employee on the job

Rami Levy employee on the job, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

There have been similar, smaller-scale protests throughout Rami Levy stores over the past decade. However, my staff and I have remained undeterred and unintimidated by these isolated occurrences. For example, when one Palestinian official in charge of boycotting economic cooperation with Israelis visited a Rami Levy location in the West Bank in 2010, to investigate the “enemy” and plan future protests, she was surprised to find relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances shopping there.15 I faced opposition from the Palestinian leadership in 2016, when I announced the construction of a mall in the Atarot industrial zone in northeast Jerusalem.

This mall will serve a critical need for the approximately 210,000 residents of the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in the area. The mall will also be meters away from the Qalandia checkpoint, where tens of thousands of Palestinians cross into Jerusalem daily.

When I announced the mall’s construction, I set forth a vision whereby Israelis and Palestinians could work and shop together, much like the dynamic that existed in Israeli and Palestinian stores before the First Intifada. I also encouraged Palestinian business owners to rent space in the mall. Before construction was completed, Palestinian businesses agreed to lease space in the mall. A. Sbitany and Sons, a Nablusbased chain of electronics stores with 85 percent of the Palestinian market share, also initially planned to open a 1,500 square-meter outlet at the mall.

Palestinians interviewed at the Qalandia checkpoint expressed positive sentiments about the proposed mall. One Palestinian woman from Ramallah commented on its convenient location; the closest alternative mall for her was in central Jerusalem, over an hour away. Another woman said that Palestinians would come to the mall because of the higher quality of Rami Levy products. She said that, for her and for many people she knew, there was no problem with Jews and Arabs shopping together.16 The PA leadership expressed a more extreme position than that of its residents. The Palestinian Consumer Protection Society and National Committee for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions issued a boycott of the Atarot mall soon after construction was announced.

BDS and denormalization activists have protested at Rami Levy stores, intimidating and even threatening our Palestinian and Israeli workers and shoppers. When one Palestinian official in charge of boycotting economic cooperation with Israelis visited a Rami Levy location in the West Bank in 2010, to investigate the “enemy” and plan future protests, she was surprised to find relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances shopping there.

Palestinian People’s Party political bureau member Khaled Mansour objected to the proposed mall because: The new mall is an example of public economic normalization using Palestinians to cover up the crimes committed by settlers and give the world a false image of coexistence. All of this is part of the fight against the boycott campaign. Israelis are trying to promote economic cooperation and implement joint projects, which is unacceptable as it overshadows our people’s right to self-determination and the establishment of an independent state.17 Boycott efforts by Mansour, the BDS movement, the Palestinian Consumer Protection Society, and others directly contravene the Oslo Interim Agreement, signed between the Israeli government and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1995. In addition to establishing relations between Israel and the PLO, the Oslo Accords created the PA and paved a pathway to Palestinian statehood. Annex VI, Objective 1 of the Oslo Accords states, “In striving to live in peaceful coexistence, the two sides will seek to design and implement various programs which will facilitate the efforts leading to full reconciliation.”18 Palestinian leaders, to further their goal of denormalizing Palestinian relations with Israel, have undermined the Oslo Accords. In practice, a company like Rami Levy that encourages Palestinian employment, shared economic activity, and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians should be celebrated by the PA, as it is in Israel.

Rami Levy shoppers in its Gush Etzion supermarket

Rami Levy shoppers in its Gush Etzion supermarket, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

Salah Haniya, the head of the Palestinian Consumer Protection Society, admitted to pressuring five Palestinian businesses planning to open shops in the mall to pull out of the project. He threatened legal action against the business owners, referencing the PA’s 2010 anti-settlement law. Unfortunately, A. Sbitany and Sons bowed to these pressures and pulled out of the project. Before the First Intifada, A. Sbitany and Sons had been popular among Israeli and Palestinian shoppers alike. Over the past 30 years, they have not had the opportunity to market to Israeli shoppers because of security issues, and the proposed store in the Atarot mall could have attracted their Israeli customer base once again.19

Rami Levy supermarket in Gush Etzion

Rami Levy supermarket in Gush Etzion, October 2017. (David Abitbol)

Conclusion

Since their founding in 1976, Rami Levy stores have grown substantially. In the 10 years since the company has gone public, our shares have given investors a 600 percent return.20 Although we are not a high-tech startup like other Israeli business success stories, much of Rami Levy’s growth can also be attributed to innovative business practices, much like many of the companies representing Israel’s pioneering startup scene. We have other factors contributing to our success, namely our policies of equality, and the diversity of Rami Levy staff and customers.

BDS and denormalization movements, terror, and protests, have attempted to threaten the “islands of peace” and coexistence at Rami Levy stores in the West Bank.

Both Israelis and Palestinians live in areas such as Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, and Shaar Binyamin. It is only logical that they should work and shop together in these areas. Although many external forces, such as the BDS and denormalization movements, terror, and protests, have attempted to threaten the “islands of peace” and coexistence at Rami Levy stores in the West Bank, our growth continues. This is normalization in the classic sense of the word.

The denormalization extremists have attempted to delegitimize our efforts at harmonious coexistence between Palestinian and Israeli employees. BDS and denormalization activists have also portrayed us as a source of tension and conflict. Rami Levy stores in the West Bank uphold the model of good-neighborly relations and peaceful normalization as envisioned and specified in the Oslo Accords. We are one of the few businesses that promote close cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian employees. In addition to being a model for economic growth and job creation in the region, Rami Levy stores also provide an important example of peaceful coexistence and cooperation in an otherwise chaotic and violent Middle East.

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Notes

1 http://www.newsweek.com/why-hard-west-bank-palestinians-boycott-israeli-goods-539953

2 http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/not-settlements-and-not-watermelons-1.360180

3 “Boycott Israeli products? Not in the PA,” Ynet, May 25, 2012, http://www.

ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4234083,00.html

4 Ibid.

5 https://pjmedia.com/blog/middle-east-coexistence-on-aisle-two-next-to-the-cornflakes/?print=1

6 http://www.oecd.org/regional/regional-policy/profile-Palestinian-Territories.pdf

7 https://www.wsj.com/articles/where-does-all-that-aid-for-palestinians-go-1453669813

8 http://jcpa.org/paying-salaries-terrorists-contradicts-palestinian-vows-peaceful-intentions

9 Yossi Kuperwasser, “Incentivizing Terrorism: Palestinian Authority Allocations to Terrorists and Their Families,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2016.

10 http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Palestinian/Pages/Wave-of-terror-October-2015.aspx

11 http://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=432284

12 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoQEFybrGj4

13 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSBVOM8Yea4

14 http://www.jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/Palestinian-activists-raise-their-flags-in-Rami-Levy

15 http://jcpa.org/stabbing-at-a-west-bank-supermarket-a-blow-to-coexistence

16 http://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-mogul-erecting-first-israeli-palestinian-mall-near-ramallah

17 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ru/contents/articles/originals/2016/07/west-bank-israel-mallpalestinian- companies.html

18 http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/the%20israelipalestinian%20 interim%20agreement.aspx

19 http://www.jewishpress.com/news/supermarket-magnate-rami-levy-building-50-million-mall-nearramallah/ 2016/01/16

20 http://www.globes.co.il/en/article-rami-levy-marks-10-years-on-tase-with-600-returns-1001188308

Rami Levy

Rami Levy is the founder of Rami Levy Shivuk Hashikma Ltd. and Israco International Food Brands Marketing Ltd. at Tiv Taam Holdings 1 Ltd. In 1976, at the age of 21, he opened his first Rami Levy wholesale supermarket in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market. Levy has since built a multimillion-dollar chain of discount supermarkets, and has diversified his business to include cellular communications, real estate development, and shopping malls.