In a victory for Tel Aviv residents and the city’s municipal council, the High Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that the government must allow a municipal bylaw granting 165 grocery stores the right to be open on Shabbat to come into effect.
The ruling comes more than three years after the Tel Aviv Municipality first approved a bylaw legalizing the opening of such stores, which led to a dispute that two governments and no less than five different interior ministers failed to resolve.
The issue became encumbered with the political sensitivities of the religious status quo, with politicians anxious to upset neither the haredi political parties, which oppose commercial activity in public on Shabbat, nor the majority of secular residents of Tel Aviv, whose representatives approved the bylaw in the first place.
The reticence of politicians on this hot-potato issue became almost farcical earlier this year when the cabinet failed to decide on the matter, after a government committee submitted policy recommendations, citing the possible but unlikely unification of Bat Yam with Tel Aviv as a reason for further deliberations.
And even haredi politicians, despite frequent grandstanding on the matter, have failed to act decisively, including Interior Minister Arye Deri, who in January re-obtained the authority to rule on this particular municipal bylaw but declined to either reject or approve it.
Various NGOs and politicians have accused Deri and the broader coalition of abrogating its responsibility to govern, leaving the High Court to make tough political decisions for the government.
In Wednesday’s decision, the three-judge panel hearing the case, headed by Supreme Court Justice Miriam Naor, ruled that the failure of the various interior ministers to explain why they were not allowing Tel Aviv’s bylaw to take effect was unreasonable and unlawful.
According to the terms of the bylaw, originally submitted to former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar in August 2014, permits will be granted to 165 grocery shops – an estimated 15% of such establishments in the city.
The permits will be distributed throughout nine districts in the city, in accordance with the character of the neighborhood, so that if one area is more traditional or religious, it will receive fewer permits than more secular areas.
In addition, the new bylaw states that only grocery stores of 500 sq.m.
or less will be able to apply for Sabbath opening permits, a quarter of which will be allocated to stores of more than 200 sq.m., which provide a greater range of products.
Following the ruling, haredi politicians were quick to demand legislation on the issue.
Health Minister and United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman denounced the ruling as “a gross legal interference in the values of religion and Jewish law, which leaves no choice but to advance a legal process to circumvent the High Court, in order to prevent a continued erosion of Jewish tradition and religion in the state.”
Deri issued a statement saying that he had asked the court for a 60-day extension before it ruled on the case, and that he had already drawn up a letter rejecting the bylaw, which he had decided to send only after Passover.
The Shas chairman called for an emergency meeting of haredi and national-religious MKs “to regulate the status of Shabbat” through legislation that would protect the status quo. He also wrote to the attorney- general, calling on him to request from the High Court that it hold a new hearing on the case in front of an expanded panel of justices in order to reevaluate its decision.
Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich also censured the High Court for its ruling, saying it was part of its “neoliberal agenda to undermine the Jewish character of the state,” and arguing that it would cause “mass Sabbath desecration” and would lead other cities to follow Tel Aviv’s lead.
“Sabbath desecration harms the Jewish character of the State of Israel and important social values,” he continued, describing advocates of the bylaw as “egotistical provocateurs” who insist on doing their shopping on Shabbat.
Smotrich was also critical of the government for failing to make a decision on the matter, and called on the haredi parties to insist that legislation be passed to rectify a change in the status quo on religion and state issues, adding that his party would “lead this [legislative] amendment with the haredi parties.”
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai issued a statement following the decision saying, “The city of Tel Aviv was free and will remain free.”
The Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah organization, which lobbies for the liberalization of the relationship between religion and state, said the ruling resulted from ongoing “foot-dragging” of the government, which had forced the High Court to act as the “responsible adult.”
The group said, however, that the decision would likely become another bone of contention in the political fight over Shabbat in the public sphere, and that legislation proposed by MKs Miki Zohar, Manuel Trajtenberg, Rachel Azaria and Elazar Stern for a broad, consensus-based compromise on Shabbat should be advanced to resolve the matter.
Azaria, of Kulanu, which is a coalition partner, stopped short of welcoming the ruling, but noted that the different sectors of society celebrate the Sabbath in different ways, a reality, she said, that should be legalized through the legislation she has advanced.
Stern said that it was the government itself that had forced the High Court into ruling on the issue.
“When the legislative authority is negligent in fulfilling its duty, it leaves no choice other than for the High Court of Justice to determine fundamental issues of our lives in the State of Israel,” he said.