Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar ordered this week that laws enforcing Shabbat observance in Tel Aviv remain in place, forcing dozens of mini-markets and other commercial venues throughout the nation’s most secular-minded city to shut down on the Jewish day of rest or face hefty fines.
But Sa’ar also acquiesced to a demand of the Tel Aviv Municipality and permitted the opening of businesses in the vicinity of the Tel Aviv and Jaffa ports, and of stores adjacent to gas stations.
In the short term, this might be the arrangement that best balances the competing values of individual autonomy and tradition. But over time dialogue and consensual solutions modeled after the Gavison-Medan Covenant must replace coercive legislation as the best way forward.
In June of last year, the High Court of Justice severely criticized the municipality for failing to enforce the municipal ordinance that prohibits commercial activity on Shabbat.
In March, in response to the ruling, Mayor Ron Huldai decided to change the municipal ordinance in a move he presented as an attempt to bring municipal bylaws up to date with the reality on the streets of Tel Aviv.
The municipality approved an amendment to a bylaw that allowed hundreds of neighborhood markets and kiosks to operate on Shabbat on designated streets throughout the city.
The amendment also permitted all types of businesses to remain open on Shabbat in three locations: Tel Aviv Port, Jaffa Port and Hatahana D – the New Station compound.
Huldai argued that Shabbat is not solely or even primarily a day imbued with religious meaning, but rather a means of protecting workers from a rapacious capitalism that would, if left unchecked, keep stores open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Unfortunately, the amendment being proposed hardly represents a sincere attempt to strike an equitable balance between the holy and the profane. Nor will it protect the right of small-business owners to keep a day of rest without being left vulnerable to competition from large chain stores that work in shifts and rely on a large pool of employees.
Even after Sa’ar struck a balance, hundreds of workers, most of whom are from the lower socioeconomic strata, will be forced to leave their families and work on the Jewish day or rest. Dozens of small-shop owners will be discriminated against and will be unable to compete with the large chain stores. The motion empties the Hours of Work and Rest Law of content.
The High Court has ruled on numerous occasions that the State of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character justifies prohibiting work on Shabbat. Consistently, our judges have referred to Shabbat as the “essence of Israel’s character,” a “national asset” and a means of safeguarding the humanity of the worker, his quality of life, honor and relationship with family and friends.
Unfortunately, over the years rampant consumerism accommodated by globalization in the form of large chain stores has resulted in the gradual but steady trampling of Shabbat.
The time has come for an initiative such as the Gavison- Medan Covenant, which calls on secular and religious Israelis to reach a compromise through mutual consent.
The initiative could be implemented on both a local and a national level to encourage civic responsibility.
Cultural venues such as movie theaters, museums and concert halls would be allowed to remain open, and limited public transportation would operate to enable mobility for poorer segments of society. Meanwhile, strict enforcement would prevent commercial centers from operating on Shabbat.
If a petition were lodged with the High Court, it is unclear whether the justices would side with Sa’ar or with the Tel Aviv Municipality.
We believe, however, that the obligation to protect the unique character of Shabbat lies with Israeli society as a whole, not the courts or with legislators. The guidelines should be hammered out through open discourse and mutual compromise, not coercive, unilateral measures.
Shabbat is a reflection of the Jewish people’s unique culture. It should be protected and nourished and given substance by both secular and religious Israelis in a consensual process of discourse and compromise.