JERUSALEM (JTA) — An Israeli falafel shop owner broke down in tears in a television interview on Sunday that resonated across the country as a symbolic encapsulation of the economic toll that the coronavirus is taking on small businesses.
“Look at my wallet, it’s empty,” said the shop owner, Yuval Carmi, pulling out his wallet during the Channel 13 interview. “I don’t have a shekel in my pocket.”
He added: “I’m embarrassed to face my children, to tell them I have nothing I can buy for you. I have nothing to give them. I have nothing to give them to eat. I don’t know what to do.”
Carmi had reopened his shop on Sunday, believing the relaxing of some regulations to control the coronavirus crisis allowed him to do so. But he was soon shut down by police, who said he could only offer delivery service.
But as a one-man operation, Carmi said he had no ability to make deliveries. And besides, he said: “It’s falafel. Falafel has to be eaten hot and fresh.”
He said he had not been able to reach any government official to discuss a possible small business loan from the government, saying it is “impossible” to reach anybody. Carmi said anyone following the news “would think we’ve been given millions. Not a shekel. Nothing. Nothing.”
“It’s not nice for me to be seen crying like this,” he told reporter Noga Nir-Neeman. “I love this country. I’m 56 years old and I still do reserve duty.
“My whole life, I’ve paid national insurance, income tax. Everything, everything on time.”
Nir-Neeman was later caught by her own camera crew wiping away tears as she stood in the store, as Carmi, also wiping tears, prepared her a falafel.
“I can’t,” she says, her voice trailing off from under a pink face mask as she runs from the store.
Since the interview was widely shared, strangers have reached out offering Carmi assistance. The day after, he also received a phone call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I saw you yesterday and you touched my heart,” Netanyahu said. “And I’ll help you. We’re going to help everyone.”
Netanyahu posted video of the call on Twitter.
Carmi responded gratefully and said he did not blame the prime minister for the economic struggle. He suggested that Netanyahu’s advisers “are not telling you what’s going on with the people.”
In a follow-up interview with Channel 13, Carmi said that he received a call from a stranger who had seen him give free falafels to a group of soldiers at his store a couple months ago. The caller asked if he could at least pay for their meals in an effort to help him. Carmi declined, saying it was his mitzvah, or good deed.
“I thank the people of Israel. But I did not turn to the people of Israel for money,” Carmi said. “I don’t want donations. I just want to make an honorable living.”