MKs hold heated debate over banning Shabbat commerce

Netanyahu forces Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar to postpone vote on bill prohibiting commercial activity on Saturdays

A grocery store that stays open on Shabbat, across from Mamilla Mall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A grocery store that stays open on Shabbat, across from Mamilla Mall
Passions flared when Likud MK Miki Zohar presented a bill banning commercial activity on Shabbat to the Knesset Wednesday, even after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened to postpone the planned vote following threats by Kulanu and Likud MKs not to support the legislation.
The prime minister requested on Wednesday morning that Zohar withdraw the bill and reach agreements within the coalition on the terms of the proposed law before bringing it to a vote.
Zohar said he had “decided to accede to Netanyahu’s request,” and withdrew the bill from the agenda “following the prime minister’s request and that of our important coalition partner, Kulanu.”
He presented the bill in the plenum and expressed confidence that it would have passed, but said he respected the prime minister’s request.
The Likud MK came out strongly against the opposition during his speech, and opposition members responded in kind, shouting the entire time.
“[Opposition leader and Zionist Union MK] Isaac Herzog, [Zionist Union MKs] Shelly Yacimovich, Merav Michaeli, Itzik Shmuly, Amir Peretz, Manuel Trajtenberg,” he said.
“You speak of socialism? How can you oppose such a social bill, a bill that allows citizens to dedicate a day to their families, that allows weak workers not to work one day a week, that sanctifies one day of rest that is important in the pace of our lives?” Zohar posited that Zionist Union MKs opposed the bill because they were afraid of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, a popular politician thought by some to be eyeing the post of party head.
“You’re afraid that, God forbid, a bill will pass that will make a Labor member obey the law and not show contempt for it like [Huldai] does today,” Zohar said, referring to the many businesses in Tel Aviv that remain open on Shabbat.
“The opponents of this important bill forgot that this country is Jewish and democratic,” Zohar added.
“Democratic, but also Jewish. The desire to cancel our day of rest is an attempt to turn our state into one without any signs of Judaism. Why do you want to forget the Jewish idea? Buji [Herzog], what is wrong with a Jewish and democratic city?” Zohar declared that Israel will forever remain Jewish and democratic “whether you want it or not,” and every Jew who seeks to rest on Shabbat will be able to do so.
“Call me messianic, but I will go on my way with faith and with God’s help because my victory is a victory for the Jewish people. We are here because of the Holy One, blessed be He,” Zohar concluded.
During the Likud MK’s speech, Shmuly and fellow MKs Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid), Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union), Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid) were removed from the plenum for being disruptive.
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, who lobbied to postpone the vote, welcomed Zohar’s decision to do so.
“The correct way to solve differences of opinion within the coalition is through agreement, especially on topics as sensitive as Shabbat,” Azaria said.
Kulanu MKs were surprised by the appearance of a vote on Zohar’s bill on Wednesday’s plenum docket, as the party had agreed to pass it through the Ministerial Committee on Legislation only on condition that it not be advanced in the Knesset without coalition consensus.
Azaria was meant to participate in an open debate on the bill, initiated by Zohar on Tuesday, but pulled out at the last moment. Later that day, Kulanu MK Eli Cohen stated he would not vote in favor should the bill come to a vote on Wednesday, severely endangering its passage, given the coalition’s razor-thin majority. In the Likud, MKs Amir Ohana and David Bitan came out strongly against the bill.
The bill would ban all commercial activity on Shabbat, apart from restaurants, bars, places of public entertainment, gas stations and pharmacies, unless they receive specific permission from the economy minister. Violating the law could lead to fines of at least NIS 4,000, and even imprisonment of up to a year.
Many in the Knesset accused Zohar of pushing the Shabbat bill to curry favor with Shas and United Torah Judaism, in order to increase his chances of being chosen coalition chairman. Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman referred to the talk by saying: “Miki Zohar turned the Likud into UTJ, but we won’t let him turn Tel Aviv into Bnei Brak.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Roi Cohen, chairman of Lahav, an association of small businesses in Israel, defended Zohar’s bill and said it was critical to the survival of small businesses.
Cohen pointed out that in many cities, the fines currently applicable for opening on Shabbat are relatively low, making it profitable for large businesses and commercial chains to violate the law and stay open, even if they have to pay a fine. Small businesses are not able to absorb such fines, he said.
“Small networks and small-tomedium- size businesses are closing down because they don’t have the capability to compete with the big chains, which are open on Shabbat,” he explained. “If equality before the law is not enforced and fines are not levied, then the competition is not fair....”
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, a representative of the Yerushalmim party on the Jerusalem Municipal Council and an opponent of Zohar’s bill, said he was in favor of reducing commercial activity on Shabbat, but only in the context of providing for the leisure and recreation requirements of people seeking to take advantage of their right to a day off.
“It is not a compelling argument to hold back commercial activity on Shabbat in order to protect small businesses. The real issue is what we want Shabbat to look like, so let’s create a solution that everyone can live with,” he said.
He also pointed to what he said was a need to guarantee access to public transportation and cultural entertainment for secular people on their day off.
“Zohar’s motives are economic and political, and he is not interested the cultural and religious aspects of this issue,” Leibowitz said. “But when he says its not about religious coercion, he comes across as being clueless.”