Open for Shabbat sign.
(photo credit: ETTI GAL-OR MENDELOVITCH)
The Shabbat wars are heating up once again after the leaders of the haredi political parties sent a letter to the prime minister on Wednesday demanding that he block a bylaw proposed by the Tel Aviv Municipality allowing larger numbers of shops to be open on Shabbat.
The High Court of Justice is scheduled to hold a hearing on petitions from both sides of the Shabbat divide later this month, and the state has until the end of the week to submit its response.
At the same time, a government committee deliberating on Tel Aviv’s proposed bylaw has submitted its recommendations to the government, although no decision has yet been taken on the options presented to it.
The Tel Aviv Municipal Council approved the bylaw allowing greater numbers of grocery stores to open on Shabbat back in August 2014.
However, not one of the interior ministers since that time has given the required stamp of approval to the new law.
A committee of directors of the Interior, Justice, Religious Services and Economy ministries was established, chaired by Prime Minister’s Office director-general Eli Groner, to draw up options the government could adopt, which have now been submitted.
The first option is simply to accept Tel Aviv’s bylaw, which would allow some 160 stores to be open on Shabbat, while the second recommendation is to adopt the Tel Aviv law but with 20 less stores to be open.
The third option is to allow only convenience stores to be open along with three retail centers in the city.
However, Interior Minister Arye Deri, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni, heads of Shas, Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, respectively, told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that none of these options is acceptable.
“We cannot be, and we do not intend to be, partners in harming the honor of, and trampling on, the Sabbath, as would be the case under this municipal bylaw,” they wrote to Netanyahu, haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat reported. “We therefore demand that the government of Israel take a clear and unilateral decision and not approve this bylaw, and prevent injury to the status quo, which prohibits commercial activity on Shabbat.”
The haredi leaders also argued that the bylaw would harm the rights of workers who would be required to work on Shabbat, and would create unfair competition for business owners who do not want to work on the Sabbath.
Despite the strong words from Deri, Litzman and Gafni, Tani Frank of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah argued that the haredi leadership is reluctant to impose its will on the residents of Tel Aviv.
Frank noted that in one of the other recent Shabbat wars over construction on the railway network, Deri had acknowledged that “we’re living in a secular state – Jewish, but secular.”
“At the same time,” Frank said, “they need to send a message to the haredi public that they are doing everything they can to ‘protect’ Shabbat, and therefore they sent this angry letter, when in practice the issue has been put on their doorstep, especially that of Deri, who is interior minister and responsible for municipal bylaws.”
He added that if the Sabbath is truly an important issue for government ministers, “including the leaders of Bayit Yehudi,” then the government should advance a broad agreement over issues concerning Shabbat in the public sphere, “and not wait for the High Court to rule on it instead.
Mickey Gitzin, of the Be Free Israel secularist lobbying group and a member of the Tel Aviv Municipal Council for Meretz, concurred with this sentiment, saying that the government is leaving the issue for the High Court instead of making tough decisions.
“Instead of recognizing that one cannot and one should not to close down Tel Aviv on Shabbat, the haredi parties issue this evasive letter which renders the recommendations of the director’s committee dead on arrival,” he said. “This letter is an example of political cowardice at its worst.”