When Yuval Carmi, a falafel shop owner from Ashdod, was interviewed and featured on primetime Israeli news in April, he became the symbol of economic collapse caused by the coronavirus.
The country watched him as he broke down in tears, explaining that social distancing regulations had forced the closure of his shop and that he was NIS 65,000 ($19,000) in debt.
“I want to set myself on fire,” he told a Channel 13 news crew, who couldn’t help but cry along with him.
The next day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Carmi and promised to help. Carmi stressed that he was not blaming the prime minister, but his advisers.
“It seems that people are not telling you what is happening with the people,” he told the premier.
Three months later, the country’s financial crisis continues with 20.9 percent of the workforce unemployed or furloughed — a whopping 848,000 Israelis. A second wave of the coronavirus has triggered grueling renewed restrictions, seen by many as arbitrary, for a public that had just begun to return to work.
The government has also come under fire for a financial rescue package that has failed to secure funds for floundering business owners. This has left people like Carmi struggling to survive.
“It’s really a joke what we got,” he recently told The Times of Israel. “In the beginning I got NIS 5,900 ($1,700) and then I got NIS 6,000 in the second tranche and that’s it. But that is not [enough] to keep the store and keep any workers. It’s not what we deserve.”
Coronavirus directly threatens Carmi’s business model. His falafel shop is based on fresh food and human interaction. He is not aware of any falafel shops doing deliveries because falafel is supposed to be eaten while it is hot. In addition, he sees his job as more than a mere business transaction. His face lights up when he talks about customer service.
“It’s not like 30 years ago when if you had a falafel shop, the customer would come and say, ‘Make me falafel!’ and you wouldn’t exchange a word with him. Today you say, ‘Hello, my brother” and you give him a [falafel] ball in his hand, a smile. It is worth the world.”
Carmi’s shop, which employs his son and four other workers, is back in business for now and adhering to social distancing regulations. But his fight is not for his shop alone.
“My heart is with them,” he said. referring to the entertainment industry, venue owners and other small business owners, some of whom have taken to the streets to protest. “We pay taxes, and we deserve it,” he said. “What do we pay national insurance for?”
Carmi sees the coronavirus as akin to a car accident — people pay for insurance and when their car is destroyed in an accident, they’re covered.
“Help the businesses!” he begged. “The moment that [the government] helps the businesses, people will survive.”
In light of the growing hardship, some ministers have come under fire in recent weeks for their disconnect from the public’s strain.
Last week, Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi asserted on a talk show that it was “bullshit” that some Israelis have no food. Although he later apologized, the remark seemed to capture the government’s perceived apathy to the situation.
Carmi experienced his own kind of backlash after his interview first aired. He was accused of making up his economic hardship.
“Many said I was rich and that I had yachts and Mercedes,” he said.
Carmi said he couldn’t sleep for three weeks.
“Even though I turned my phone off they reached my children, my wife, everyone,” he said. “People just wouldn’t give us any rest and they slandered my name. My wife, my children, every night we would cry at home, cry at home. Why are they saying things like that about us?”
It got so bad that Carmi, who was very close to a heart attack, had to be hospitalized and go through a cardiac catheterization. According to the hospital doctors, this was a direct result of his emotional stress. But even at the hospital the mean-spiritedness didn’t stop. Before his surgery, he was recognized by a couple in the hallway. The man called him “that crybaby from TV” and told him, “I went bankrupt and didn’t cry like you.”
Carmi ignored the man in the hospital, and he ignores other ill-wishers.
“I just took it upon myself to not respond and to bless every single person, those who tarnished my name and those who supported me,” he said.
Carmi hopes that his refusal to react in kind will encourage those who insult him to do some self-reflection, “and then next time, they maybe won’t do it to another person.” Indeed, some people who attacked him have since sent him messages saying they are sorry for what they did.
Although the falafel shop remains open for now, with Carmi’s son taking over while he is in recovery, there is uncertainty about the future.
Last week three neighborhoods in Ashdod near his shop were locked down due to a high spike in coronavirus cases. But he remains hopeful. Even though business in not near what it used to be, some people come all the way from Herzliya and Haifa to eat at his shop and support him.
“Am Yisrael Chai” — the People of Israel lives — he said. “There is no one like Am Yisrael. Nothing even close.”