Yisrael Beytenu politicians planning provocative Shabbat visit to Ashdod

“The issuing of fines [on Shabbat] in Ashdod is outrageous, this is religious coercion and an attempt to change the status quo in the city. We have to oppose it."

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in Ashdod, January 20, 2018 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in Ashdod, January 20, 2018
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yisrael Beytenu politicians are set to make a controversial visit to the Ashdod Big Fashion shopping center on Shabbat, in a show of opposition to what they and activists in the city say is declining commercial activity on Shabbat.
Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, MK Yulia Malinovski, party members of the Ashdod City Council and other activists “who oppose religious coercion” will all descend on the shopping center on Saturday morning, the party said on Thursday.
The stated purpose is to demonstrate their opposition to fines that were issued to various businesses in the city last week for opening on Shabbat, something which business owners and activists say violates the status quo that has been observed regarding commercial activity on Shabbat in the city for many years.
“The issuing of fines in Ashdod is outrageous, this is religious coercion and an attempt to change the status quo in the city. We have to oppose it and I invite the public to join us,” said Landver.
Activists in the city say that for many years, the status quo has been that businesses in commercial centers away from the city center and residential areas have been allowed to operate.
They now allege that Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri is breaking the status quo due to political pressure from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties in the city council and their outsized political representation.
The activists also pointed out that this is a municipal elections year, and said that the municipality’s crackdown is designed to appease the Haredi parties to gain backing from them for another local coalition.
Lasri, for his part, claims that the timing is not relevant and that the Ashdod Magistrate’s Court has forced the city to enforce its 1976 bylaw regulating businesses opening on Shabbat.
In a meeting of the municipal council on Wednesday, Lasri explained that the city itself had filed a lawsuit to the court two years ago against grocery stores and supermarkets that began opening on Shabbat, some even in front of synagogues, the mayor claimed.
The court approved legal action against these stores but insisted that enforcement be applied equally across the city in light of the bylaw.
Lasri said that he is formulating a proposal to restore consensus in the city over the issue of Shabbat.
“Ashdod will be as it always was, with it written on its gates that ‘Here live Haredim with secular people, religious and traditional,’” Lasri said during the meeting.
The activist groups against the fines and business closures argue however that the bylaw also sets out other restrictions not related to Shabbat, such as stipulating that businesses cannot open during the week from 7:30 p.m. until 5 a.m., but that these clauses are not being enforced by the city.
“We are in favor of enforcing the law, but you can’t enforce it only partially,” said Alex Panov, a Free Ashdod group activist, who insisted therefore that Lasri has indeed cracked down on businesses on Shabbat for political reasons.
Once again this Saturday night, a demonstration is scheduled to be held outside the Ashdod City Council building.
Panov noted, however, that the visit by Yisrael Beytenu politicians and activists was not connected to the various activist groups in the city, and said that politicians would not be allowed to speak at the demonstration.
“We are happy to have support, but this issue is not one of religious versus secular, or Left versus Right, but a struggle over how the Shabbat should look in the State of Israel,” he said.
Last month, Yisrael Beytenu leader and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also paid a visit to the city on Shabbat, and did some shopping at the Big Fashion center, had coffee in a cafe, and made harsh comments about the Haredi community.
United Torah Judaism reacted furiously to his visit, saying his visit was a provocation and condemning his use of public resources, such as his bodyguards and drivers, on Shabbat.