Coalition tensions over Shabbat continue as Kulanu threatens to vote against MK Zohar’s Shabbat law

Kulanu has insisted that any measures be made in parallel with legislation that increases access to recreational activities on Shabbat.

A convenience store in Jerusalem that is open on Shabbat (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A convenience store in Jerusalem that is open on Shabbat
Several Kulanu MKs have warned Likud MK Miki Zohar that they will not support his bill banning commercial activity on Shabbat if he brings it to a vote in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday as scheduled.
The issue of Shabbat in the public realm has created tensions in the coalition recently, with Zohar and the Shas party championing the right to a day of rest for small business owners and employees.
Kulanu, however, has insisted that any such measures be made in parallel with legislation that increases access to cultural, leisure and recreational activities on Shabbat and the facilities needed to provide such activities.
The scheduling of a Wednesday vote on Zohar’s bill came as surprise to Kulanu, given the opposition the party had expressed toward the legislation in its current format.
The bill would ban all commercial activity on Shabbat, apart from restaurants, bars, places of public entertainment, gas stations and pharmacies if they receive specific permission from the economy minister.
Violating this law could lead to fines of at least NIS 4,000 and even imprisonment of up to a year.
Kulanu MK Eli Cohen said on Tuesday that Zohar’s law constituted a change to the status quo on issues of religion and state, and that any changes to the status quo “should be carried out with agreement and not coercion.”
Cohen said, “Even though I am a [religiously] traditional person, I do not intend to support the bill proposed by MK Miki Zohar in its current format. Any change needs to be carried out with broad agreement, giving every sector its own freedom.”
During an open Knesset discussion earlier on Tuesday initiated by Zohar himself, Kulanu MK Roy Folkman requested that Zohar remove the bill from Wednesday’s agenda. Zohar said he would “seriously consider” doing so.
MK Rachel Azaria, also of Kulanu, was expected to attend the discussion, but canceled at the last moment due to scheduling conflicts, her office said.
Following the discussion, Azaria said, “The correct way to resolve differences of opinion within the coalition is through agreements, certainly on a topic as sensitive as Shabbat,” noting, like Cohen, that changes to the status quo require the approval of all coalition parties.
She said that any such changes “cannot be done with one-sided legislation, but rather through agreement.”
A group of independent grocery stores, snack shops and small businesses in Tel Aviv have in recent years conducted a concerted campaign to enforce the existing bylaw prohibiting such stores from opening on Shabbat.
This association of small businesses claims that they are negatively impacted by the widespread opening of larger grocery stores and chains of mini-markets on Shabbat, and that they are forced into either working on the holiday or into losing money. The association also points out that the fines for opening on Shabbat are not enforced.
The Tel Aviv Municipal Council passed a new bylaw in 2014 regulating the opening of grocery stores on Shabbat, but it required the approval of the Interior minister, which has been delayed until now.
On Monday, the Knesset approved a government decision to transfer the authority away from the Interior minister and instead established a governmental committee to review the Tel Aviv bylaw.
The Meretz party in the Tel Aviv Municipal Council has threatened to appeal to the High Court of Justice if the government rejects the new bylaw.
During Tuesday’s discussion, Roi Cohen, chairman of the Lahav association of small businesses in Israel, said that the state’s policies were severely harming the viability of small businesses.
“Shabbat is a day of rest and it needs to remain that way,” said Cohen. “The powerlessness of the local authorities and the state is bringing about a fatal blow to the small and medium size business sector, which is forced to watch how it’s livelihood is stolen by big shopping centers that began to transgress the law on a small scale and are now doing so on a large scale.”
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council for the Yerushalmim party, said that the bill strengthens a recent trend of Shabbat closures supported by the Chief Rabbinate, and that it threatens to increase secular flight from Jerusalem.
“I am religious and there are coffee shops close to me that are open on Shabbat. This hurts me, but I support it. Secular people are getting up and leaving this city, and people who live non-stop want to be in a non-stop city. Closing 24/7 shops on Shabbat tells secular people in a given city that this is not a city for you.”
Zohar fiercely rejected Leibowitz’s claim that his law strengthened the Chief Rabbinate, saying it was completely false.
“I stated clearly that the motivation for submitting this bill was social reasons. Everyone is entitled to a day of rest, including workers and employees who don’t want to work seven days a week,” the Likud MK said.
Tani Frank of Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah said the organization was opposed to Zohar’s law since it didn’t deal with other aspects of Shabbat.
“Our problem with the law is that it deals only with business interests and not with other aspects of Shabbat in the public sphere like public transport, opening of communal centers on Shabbat, and similar issues,” said Frank.