Activists in Ashdod fight increased Shabbat restrictions

Ashdod is 20% Haredi, but members of that demographic hold over 30% of seats in the city's municipal council

Utra-orthodox men smoke cigarettes near the beach in Ashdod (photo credit: REUTERS)
Utra-orthodox men smoke cigarettes near the beach in Ashdod
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the shadow of the recently approved “minimarkets law,” activists in Ashdod are stepping up efforts to fight what they see as increasing stringencies, and even violations of the status quo, in the city regarding Shabbat in the public domain.
Over the last two weekends, city inspectors have distributed warning notices of impending fines to businesses in commercial centers such as Big Fashion and Star Center for opening on Shabbat, in what the city says is in contravention of a 1976 municipal bylaw prohibiting businesses from opening on the day of rest.
Included among the businesses that received warnings were several restaurants.
Although the status quo has meant that commercial businesses close on Shabbat, leisure and recreational businesses – such as restaurants, bars, cafes, theaters and the like – can remain open.
Additionally, commercial centers outside cities or away from city centers have also been allowed to open.
The municipal authority recently issued a tender to hire eight new city inspectors specifically from the non-Jewish sector, which activists say demonstrates the municipality’s intent to use these workers to increase the number of fines for businesses opening on Shabbat.
Activists in Ashdod now claim that the recent warnings against businesses in these centers have constituted “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Last Friday, 150 cars and vehicles with black balloons drove around the city in protest of these developments, while 5,000 demonstrators turned out for a rally at Big Fashion on Shabbat morning in support of the shopping center and more protested outside Ashdod City Hall on Saturday evening.
Another demonstration is planned outside city hall for this coming Saturday night.
Alex Panov, an activist with the Free Ashdod group, told The Jerusalem Post that the recent fine warnings were just the latest example of a growing trend toward cracking down on commercial and leisure activity on Shabbat in the city, which is 20% Haredi.
He mentioned a recent agreement between the city and the government to build some 40,000 housing units, in which it was stipulated that 25% would be specifically designated for the Haredi population. Activists appealed this clause to the High Court of Justice and succeeded in having it removed.
Another recent issue which evoked consternation was a clause in the tender for the operation of a paddle-boats center in the Ashdod Sea Park, prohibiting it from opening on Shabbat – a clause which has now gone into effect.
According to Panov and other activists, Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri has begun to heighten restrictions on Shabbat because of his political dependency on the Haredi political factions in the city, which hold 10 of the 27 seats in the municipal council, and nine of the 17 portfolios in the municipal coalition.
Panov said that the voter turnout among the Haredi community is approximately 95%, compared to just 50% for the non-Haredi community, accounting for the discrepancy between the size of the Haredi population and its representation in the municipal council.
Haredi activists, however, point to what they also say is a violation of the status quo, claiming that fewer fines have been issued to businesses operating on Shabbat in recent years.
Although these figures could not be independently verified by press time, statistics provided by Haredi activists showed that the number of issued fines decreased from 2010, when some 3,000 were issued, to just 600 in 2017.
The figures showed that the opening of the Big Fashion center led to a significant rise in businesses remaining open on Shabbat, although nonreligious activists argue that these businesses should be included in those which are allowed to open due to their location away from the city center.