In an apparent quid pro quo to appease Jerusalem’s sizable haredi community, which is largely appalled over the Shabbat operation of a new multiplex, Mayor Nir Barkat is said to be ready to bar several downtown mini-markets from opening over the weekend.
The move came less than a week after the 16-screen Yes Planet debuted in southern Jerusalem amid widespread protests by haredi councilmen and tens of thousands of their constituents, some of whom rioted.
A statement released by the municipality on Wednesday said that while most mini-markets in secular areas would not be affected, those operating on Shabbat near haredi neighborhoods would be subjected to “heightened enforcement” in terms of limited hours of operation.
“The municipality’s legal adviser instructed that various areas in the city be set aside for lessened enforcement (Ein Kerem, Talpiot, Atarot and the southwestern part of the city), and areas where there will be heightened enforcement (the haredi neighborhoods, Kiryat Hale’om [the area around the Knesset and government offices], the Jewish Quarter and parts of the city center),” the statement said.
“It is important to stress that in accordance with the law and the status quo, entertainment spots, restaurants and cinemas will continue to operate as usual,” it added. The municipality insisted that there has been “no change in the status quo that has been in place for several years in Jerusalem, according to which cinemas in the city are allowed to open on the Sabbath.”
According to Army Radio, eight mini-markets will be affected.
Several members of the municipal council have said that Barkat ordered the weekend closures to placate religious council members. United Torah Judaism MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev have threatened that the party’s Degel Hatorah wing could quit Barkat’s coalition if the multiplex remained open on Shabbat.
Many cities, including Jerusalem, have bylaws that were enacted many years ago to prohibit businesses from opening on Shabbat unless they were leisure-oriented, such as restaurants, cafes and cinemas. It remains unclear when the Shabbat closures will begin in Jerusalem, where municipal authorities have generally turned a blind eye to enforcing the law against convenience stores.
Council representative Hanan Rubin, whose Hitorerut party is a member of the Barkat’s coalition, said the party was broadly against commercial activity on Shabbat, although he and other members opposed Barkat’s plan to shut down the mini-markets.
“Jerusalem’s city center has a diverse population, including secular people, tourists and others. If there are eight grocery stores open on Shabbat, then clearly there is demand, and they should be allowed to remain open,” Rubin told The Jerusalem Post.
He claimed that Barkat was offering the Shabbat closure orders to placate the haredi parties.
“The haredim are extorting him over the issue of Yes Planet so that they can have a victory to show that they succeeded on one of these Shabbat issues,” Rubin told the Post.
Deputy Mayor Haim Epstein, of the haredi Bnei Torah party, another coalition partner, denied the move was related to Yes Planet.
“We have always been asking the mayor to increase enforcement of the current law that prohibits business activity,” he told the Post. “We simply want to preserve that status quo.”
Epstein added that tourism to Jerusalem was based on it being a spiritual city, and that Jews, Christians and Muslims flocked to the capital to witness its unique character.
“People who come to Jerusalem want to experience the spirituality that exists here,” he said. “There are more beautiful places to go, and cities with more activities, but people want to see something different when they come to Jerusalem, and we should not destroy this atmosphere.”
In a rare show of solidarity, Councilman Arieh King, who has frequently been at odds with the mayor, applauded Barkat mandate.
“I am glad the mayor has stood behind his word to take several steps that will strengthen the status of the Sabbath in the holy city of Jerusalem,” King said. “I am very hopeful that this will be the beginning of a new period in which Jerusalem will be truly kept united, in deed and not just in word, and the city’s sanctity and that of the Sabbath will be safeguarded.”
But Meretz Councilwoman Laura Wharton, who is head of the opposition, accused Barkat of changing his policies “due to a small and extremist pressure group.”
“The timing is suspicious,’ Wharton told the Post. “This step has been taken following meetings behind closed doors with haredi representatives, and it’s the wrong policy for Jerusalem.
The mayor is treating the city as if it were an open market for bargaining away the rights of 30 percent of Jerusalem’s population, especially without involving the municipal council.”
The Yerushalmim party, also a member of Barkat’s municipal coalition, is opposed the mayor’s plan as well.
The party’s Tamir Nir, who is a deputy mayor, has described the decision as “an injury to the business owners, the city’s residents, and tourists visiting the city.”
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On took to Facebook on Wednesday to condemn the move.
“To make it up to the ultra-Orthodox public for opening Yes Planet in Jerusalem on Saturday,” Gal-On wrote, “Nir Barkat decided to punish Jerusalem secularists and the owners of the few businesses still open on Saturdays in the city center – businesses that primarily serve the secular and tourists.”
She added that the decision not only would affect significant revenue streams for the mini-markets, but would “trample” the rights of the secular community in a cynical attempt to cater to the ultra-Orthodox.
“I will be the first to defend the religious freedom of every citizen of Israel, and the ultra-Orthodox community’s right to live by its own worldview,” she continued. “But I will not be silent when the same rights for the secular are trampled in the name of ultra-Orthodox rights.”
She added that Jerusalem’s secular community had already made numerous concessions to appease the religious.
“No people in the world are more considerate than Jerusalem’s secular community,” she wrote. “Half of the streets in their city are blocked on Saturday....
[They are] required to give up their freedom of movement and the option to go out during their one day off a week – and in 99 percent of the cases, even to use this day to buy milk and a newspaper.”
Gal-On said Barkat was instituting a policy of “religious coercion” to maintain the city’s precarious status quo.
“For me, there is only one emotion evoked in light of such blatant infringement of the freedom of business owners and the public that elected him: Shame,” she wrote.