For months on end Cinema City Jerusalem demanded that a contracted taxi company send only Jewish drivers for some of its workers. When the company refused, the megaplex cut its ties. An investigative by our Hebrew site, Local Call, in cooperation with ‘Ulpan Shishi,’ Channel 2’s flagship news broadcast.
By Yael Marom
“If she wants a Jewish driver, she’ll get a Jewish driver, I don’t understand what difference it makes.”
“The two of them just asked for a Jewish driver.”
“A woman needs to make it to Mevaseret Zion, I would like a Jewish driver to come pick her up.”
“One must ask gently and diplomatically for a Jewish driver for the girls.”
These were the words the manager and shift manager at Jerusalem’s Cinema City used when talking to the ride coordinator of the taxi company that drove movie theater workers home at night (the company employs both Jewish and Arab workers). The discriminatory demands were made in recorded phone conversations, as well as by special vouchers that had the words “Jewish driver” written on them, for which Cinema City paid a high price. Local Call was able to get a hold of both the recordings and the vouchers, which are now being exposed for the first time in a special investigative report that conducted in cooperation with “Ulpan Shihi,” the flagship weekend news program on Israel’s Channel 2.
After a long period of time in which the ride organizer at the cab company tried to object to Cinema City’s discriminatory and racist demand, which directly affected the livelihoods of Arab taxi drivers, a senior manager at the movie theater threatened that Cinema City would cut its ties with the company — a threat that eventually became reality.
According to Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation as well as Israel’s Equal Opportunities Law, discriminating against workers due to their origin, nationality or religion is strictly forbidden.
A Jewish driver is part of the service
At the end of February 2014, Jerusalem’s glitzy Cinema City, which includes 19 movie theaters and a small shopping mall, opened to the public. The “A. Mor Hasaot” transportation company won the tender to provide taxis for approximately 20 workers. The company provided nine permanent drivers for the job — three of them Jewish and six of them Arabs from East Jerusalem.
Thair Raga, a 36-year-old cab driver from East Jerusalem, was appointed to be in charge of coordinating the night rides according to the demands made by the Cinema City shift managers. “We got used to the workers, the drivers were nice, there was no problem, everything worked well,” he says.
But three months after the complex opened, three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, followed by the kidnapping and murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir from Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood, there was a military operation in the West Bank and a war in Gaza. War, fear and hate flooded the streets of Jerusalem.
And then everything changed. The workers at Cinema City began saying they were afraid of Arab drivers and demanded that only Jewish drivers take them home. “Everything was fine until the war began in the summer,” says Raga. “The female workers began to get scared, and then it turned into a phenomenon whereby the workers were demanding a Jewish driver, and Cinema City requires us to meet those demands, since it is part of the service. At first I told myself that we would make it work for the time being, since the situation was very difficult in Jerusalem and there are Jewish drivers in the company, and then it would pass. But it didn’t pass.”
According to Raga, when the workers began to feel that their demands for “Jewish drivers” were not being honored, they told the Cinema City management that they would go on strike, and some of them even threatened to quit.
Raga began receiving more and more requests for a “Jewish driver.” “The shift managers would call and demand a Jewish driver, but would do it out of shame,” he said. “At first they would say a specific name of a Jewish driver that they want, so that they wouldn’t hurt my feelings or have to say outright that they want a Jewish driver.”
What about the rest of the Arab drivers? How did they react to this demand?
“I found myself between a rock and hard place, between Arab drivers to whom I owe an explanation, and the Cinema City management. In the end, I had to explain to them, and they were obviously upset. Sometimes I had to tell the other drivers: ‘Guys, it’s going to be a shift full of racists today, there is no work left for us’.”
10 percent extra per Jewish driver
The summer ended, the war came to an end, Jerusalem calmed down, but for some of the workers at Cinema City, it became acceptable to refuse to ride with an Arab driver. They continued to demand Jewish taxi drivers — a celebration of racism that directly harmed the Arab drivers’ livelihood, and led to higher costs for the company, which was forced to contract Jewish drivers, who do not regularly work with the company, in order to provide the service to the workers.
As 2014 came to a close, Raga decided that he was no longer willing to remain silent. “The situation in Jerusalem calmed down, and I began opposing the policy. I told them that the next diver in line would take the workers, and that it doesn’t matter if its Chaim or Ahmad.”
Raga tried to talk to the managers and workers at Cinema City about the issue. On February 19 of this year, Merav Basher, one of the top managers and a representative of the owners of Cinema City Jerusalem, sent an email to the workers in which she gave guidelines for conduct vis-a-vis the cab company. In it she wrote:
“It is important to be sensitive to the issue of Arab/Jewish drivers. After the HaPisga cab company was fined for a request for a Jewish driver by a client, the Transportation Ministry is checking all the cab companies. One must ask in a gentle and diplomatic fashion for a Jewish driver for the girls.” She also named Raga as someone who is “causing trouble.”
The only thing that really occurred in the wake of Raga’s attempts was that the workers understood that Jewish drivers would cost more. And so, toward the end of February, Basher and the manager of A. Mor Hasaot held a meeting, during which it was agreed that Cinema City would pay 10 percent more (on top of the pre-established cost) for a Jewish driver.
In order to keep track, the vouchers for ordering a driver would be marked to show that they were for Jewish drivers. “I told them that I want to differentiate from a Jewish driver from a regular one on the bill. They asked me whether to require two signatures or write ‘Jewish driver,’ and I asked that they write down that the driver was Jewish. They agreed,” Raga tells me as he smiles victoriously. It is obvious to him that the only reason anyone will believe him is because he recorded the conversations. From that moment on, he began demanding that the shift managers call him on the phone in order to make the order, and recorded them, one after another, as they clearly request a ‘Jewish driver.'”
On March 9, Raga decided to confront Basher once again and recorded their conversation. Throughout the conversation he explains to Basher that even workers who do not ride alone with the driver are demanding to be driven only by a Jew. Basher didn’t seem too fazed: “Thair, it is possible that sometimes you order a cab for someone, and then it is decided to add more people to ride along with her. If she wants a Jewish driver, there will be a Jewish driver, what difference does it make? I don’t understand.”
Raga insisted that the cost of a Jewish driver would be much higher, especially if the driver will be making a number of stops. Basher responded: “But this is the situation. If it doesn’t work for you, we can go our separate ways. What difference does the number of stops make?” and added, “I don’t see a problem with any of this. It doesn’t matter to me whether the driver is Jewish, Circassian, Christian or Spanish. It doesn’t matter to me. As long as the driver makes as many stops as he is asked to.”
Raga told Basher about an incident in which one of the workers refused to ride in his cab, since they want “one of ours,” and explained how it made him feel. “It was as if I was trash. And you’re supporting them. That’s how you are treating me, Merav, and it hurts me personally,” reminding her that he has been working with her since Cinema City’s opening day. Basher promised to take care of the issue. Instead, she continued to support the demands of the workers, justified their fear and emphasized the need to provide them with a sense of security.
Two days later, on March 11, Raga called Yaniv Turgeman, the CEO of Cinema City Jerusalem and demanded he get involved and put an end to the discrimination. This conversation was also recorded. Turgeman, who only “barely heard” about “this nonsense,” said that he “told Merav and you should tell everyone that this is unacceptable,” while on the other hand said that in the case that there is a Jewish driver, and this is what the workers want, this is what they must receive.
On March 23, after midnight, Basher called Raga. “Listen, I have a problem. I have a woman who needs to get to Mevaseret Zion. I want a Jewish driver to come pick her up,” she demanded. Raga explained that he had no Jewish drivers available, and that a Jewish driver from another station will want cash for his services.
Basher responded: “There is nothing I can do, nothing. I need this. I cannot send this woman to ride in fear. If not, I will let her take a cab and pay her back tomorrow. This is part of the service that you are supposed to give me.” Basher became angry over the fact that there was a lack of Jewish drivers that night, threatening Raga: “I am putting an end to this tomorrow. I don’t have the energy. I’m moving to a different company. Egged [an Israeli transportation company] will provide me with three people a night.”
When shame is too much to bear
On Sunday, May 3, Merav announced that Cinema City would be immediately cutting ties with A. Mor Hasaot.
I have been listening to Raga’s recordings for weeks. One recording followed by another. Friendly conversations that always reach that inevitable moment in which the shift manager must openly use the words “Jewish driver.” The shame in their voices is too much to bear. From the conversations with them, it is clear that they understand that the policy is racist and hurtful, but none of them did anything about it.
During one of my meetings with Raga I asked him why he, too, didn’t remain silent, especially after coming to terms with the personal price he would be forced to pay. Many others would have just put aside their pride and moved on.
“First of all, it’s me. I don’t know how to shut up,” he says. “I pay my taxes. I do everything this country demands of me. I don’t turn my back. So why is it that when I deserve to be treated like a human being I need to take a step back?”
This investigative report is a result of a joint effort by our Hebrew site, Local Call, and “Ulpan Shishi,” the flagship weekend news program on Israel’s Channel 2. Channel 2 asked Cinema City to respond to the entire affair. The following is their full response:
“The company’s work was terminated over professional differences alone, without any relation to the [ethnic] origin of the company drivers. Cinema City, both in Jerusalem and across the country, employs Arabs in a range of different positions, including management. Thus, the claims of racism and discrimination do not reflect the reality and certainly not the values of Cinema City.
“Due to continual professional dissatisfaction that stemmed, among other things, from dropping off workers at the wrong addresses, as well as significant tardiness of drivers in picking up workers and unsatisfactory service on their part, it was decided to switch to a different company. It must be stated that there is an additional reason for switching companies, although we are unable to reveal the reason for privacy reasons.
“We must emphasize that today, Egged provides rides to the workers in Jerusalem, and the service is provided by both Jewish and Arab drivers. Unfortunately, A. Mor chose to seek revenge on Cinema City after the latter ended the contract through false and biased claims.”
The response was formulated by the office of PR king Rani Rahav. The response only confirms the fact that Cinema City did exactly what Basher threatened to do in her conversation with Raga, and began working with a different company. The “satisfactory” service was, in effect, providing Jewish drivers on demand. Raga refused to provide this service.