Haredi boycott sparks secular protests in Bnei Brak

This comes after ultra-Orthodox sanction Shefa Shuk over decision to keep AM:PM stores in Tel Aviv open on Shabbat.

shefa shuk 88 224 (photo credit: David Wainer)
shefa shuk 88 224
(photo credit: David Wainer)
The power of the haredi community to mobilize itself and impact business decisions through boycotts of varying degrees is well-recognized in Israeli society. On occasion, a given company's "unkosher" business practices may rub influential haredi rabbis the wrong way, causing them to place a herem (boycott) on a business, threatening to take away major clients. In 2006, for instance, a decision by El Al to allow planes to take off on Shabbat following an airport strike resulted in major friction with the haredi community. After many threats by haredi leaders to issue a herem, El Al signed an agreement, in early 2007, that it would not fly on Shabbat, fearing a loss of 15 percent-25% of its customer base. Over the past month, haredi leaders have called for a boycott against Dor Alon Inc. and its owner, Dudi Weissman, for keeping AM:PM stores in Tel Aviv open on Shabbat. The Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat and Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau announced in the haredi media that companies owned by Weissman should not be traded with, until further notice. Dor Alon operates eight Shefa Shuk supermarkets in haredi neighborhoods, and revenue from these outlets decreased by 50% as haredi shoppers stayed away. Last week, Weissman relented to haredi pressure. According to Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknop, secretary of the Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat, Weissman has agreed to close down all new outlets of his AM:PM chain on Shabbat. But the recent closing of AM:PM stores in largely secular Tel Aviv has sparked a reaction. Through social-networking Web sites such as Facebook, many young secular Tel Avivians, appalled by the haredi "meddling" in their lives, have begun to organize in an effort to counter the boycott. One initiative by two women in their late 20s has received considerable media coverage. Last week, in response to Weissman's decision to close down some of his AM:PM outlets, Sari Rozner Glazer and Anat Confortes announced a "counter-boycott" through a Facebook event entitled "We will buy at Shefa Shuk and we will keep AM:PM open 24/7." The announcement called on anyone who cared about the issue to "come shop for your Pessah needs" in the Shefa Shuk outlet in Bnei Brak, where many haredim have been refraining from shopping. In their Facebook group, Glazer wrote: "The battle that was started by leaders in the haredi community against the group Dor Alon, owned by Dudi Weissman, is a battle against the people's freedom of choice. Last week, the pressure applied by the haredi community succeeded in closing outlets of AM: PM (owned by Weissman) on Shabbat." "We will shop in Bnei Brak as if it were a routine," she added. "We will express our will as 'Tel Avivim,' secular Israelis, and as people who care to safeguard the liberal identity of freedom in Israel. We have buying power and the power to influence." Last Friday in Bnei Brak, at about 11:30 a.m. (the "secular shopping" there was set for noon), as most supermarkets in haredi neighborhoods were bustling with shoppers preparing for Shabbat, the Shefa Shuk branch located on Rehov Hashlosha - unofficially boycotted by the haredi community - was quiet; roughly one week before Pessah, there weren't too many shoppers. But outside the supermarket the scenario was quite different. Cameramen were waiting to film the defiant secular shoppers who were due to arrive. A large crowd of haredim were also outside to stage their own protest. A haredi man announced to the crowd: "We don't welcome people from other cities to come into our town and dictate how we should run our city. Those who choose to desecrate the holiness of the Shabbat will not be tolerated here in Bnei Brak." The atmosphere outside Shefa Shuk resembled a rally, as police, security guards, cameramen and journalists milled about. But it was under control, as the secular shoppers had not yet arrived en masse. Then the atmosphere changed. At about 12:20, secular youth started taking shopping carts to enter the store. Altercations between about 150 haredi demonstrators and some 80 secular shoppers began. When asked by a haredi man why he was acting like a "goy," a young man in his 20s said: "I am a Jew just like you. My grandparents died in Auschwitz. The difference is that I have moved on and you are still living in the shtetl." The haredi man responded: "A country without connection to its past has no future!" The young secular man, who identified himself as Eli, told The Jerusalem Post he was present to make sure that the state doesn't "cave in to the demands of a minority." Photographers raced around the parking lot for two hours trying to get the best shot of the bickering and yelling between haredi and secular protesters, as young shoppers from Tel Aviv were inside. Anat Confortes, co-organizer of the event, said the secular community, a majority in Israel, had made its presence felt. "Throughout the Israeli media, on Facebook and in coffee shops, people are talking about our initiative," she said. "Religious leaders are aware of our actions here. It's important to let them know that they can't stop us from living the way we want to." An onlooker, Hanith Danino, a young woman in her 20s from Tel Aviv who identified herself as "not religious," said the entire scene was unnecessary and only furthered secular-religious strife. "This is an immature way for secular people to make their voices heard," she said. "By coming to Bnei Brak to make a statement, they are only causing more fighting between the two sides." Weissman and the Dor Alon group refused to speak with the media about the secular "counter-boycott." Since the boycott was lifted last week by the Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat, there have been more haredi shoppers at the Shefa Shuk on Rehov Hashlosha, but security personnel at the store said a relatively low number of shoppers were turning up. Glazer said she expected the event to influence Weissman's future decisions. "Our small event has made such a large impact on the media," she said. "We have been able to put our voices on the agenda of the decision-makers."