(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Jerusalem Municipality has pressed charges against four non-kosher city restaurants and a mini-market for selling hametz (leavened products) over Pessah.
The controversial lawsuits, coming a year before city mayoral elections, raise anew the delicate question of how Israel should maintain its Jewish character while protecting personal freedoms and avoiding religious coercion.
A largely unenforced 1986 national law bans the public display of leavened products for sale or consumption during the holiday.
The law, which has rarely been enforced except when a haredi party such as Shas controlled the Interior Ministry, was suddenly brought back to life this year after the five Jerusalem businesses were fined nearly NIS 13,000 each for selling leavened products over the holiday.
The unusual trial of the five businesses got under way Thursday at the Jerusalem Municipal Court with attorneys for the owners saying that the case could set a nationwide precedent.
"We are just trying to make a living in peace, and, as usual, city hall is giving us a hard time," said Allison Larov, the Toronto born co-owner of the city's downtown Chili's Pizza, which was one of the five businesses sued by the municipality after nearly eight years of operation.
"Instead of encouraging you, they are looking for ways to cut you off at your knees," she said.
"A law which was meant to safeguard the religious public is being exploited in a provocative manner to create unnecessary hatred," said Shahar Levy, the owner of the city's Resto-Bar in the upscale Rehavia neighborhood, which was also sued by the city for the first time after opening its doors three years ago.
Attorneys for the defendants repeatedly stressed in their opening arguments in the small, unusually crowded municipal courtroom Thursday that the law specifically bans the display of leavened products, and not the sale of leavened products.
The other eateries sued by the city include Riff-Raff, Ivo Meat Burger, and the mini-market, Terminal 21.
A sixth convenience store reached an agreement with the municipality and avoided further legal action by paying a fine.
The owners of the non-kosher city eateries sued by the municipality said Thursday that they did not advertise the fact that they sold leavened products, although a sign on one burger joint in the city's trendy German Colony did advertise their leavened fare on a small placard in their window last Pessah.
Jerusalem Municipality spokesman Gidi Schmerling said Thursday that the city enforces the laws of the State of Israel every year, including the law banning the display of leavened products over Pessah.
He added that the the city was forbidden to file suits against businesses last year after it emerged that the Interior Ministry authorizations reached city inspectors too late.
Meretz city councilman Sa'ar Nethanel, who led a five-person protest outside the city courtroom, blasted the city's legal moves as undemocratic religious coercion.
"The municipality wants to eradicate the phenomenon of leavened bread from the Holy City, but on its way they will also eradicate the secular public from the city," the leftist city councilman said.
"Unfortunately, it seems that Jerusalem city inspectors have become 'revolutionary guards.'"
"The mayor has got to get out of our plates," he added.
Although most Jewish residents of Jerusalem avoid all leavened products over the holiday, mainstream religious leaders have voiced opposition to such inspections, calling them counterproductive, and saying they do more harm than good.