A branch of the 24-7 AM:PM chain in Tel Aviv.
A branch of the 24-7 AM:PM chain in Tel Aviv. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Changing Tel Aviv’s bylaws to allow businesses that sell food to open on Shabbat will take many months, Mayor Ron Huldai warned Monday, adding that the municipality was determined to maintain its character as a "free and pluralistic" society.

“In recent days, many people have been discussing Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s character on Shabbat,” Huldai wrote on his Facebook page. “I want to make this clear: We will find a legal way to preserve Tel Aviv-Jaffa as an open, free and pluralistic city, as it has been until now.”

Specifically, he said, the city is considering changing its bylaws in response to last week’s Supreme Court ruling that it must either alter its bylaws or close all food-related businesses on Shabbat. But this involves conferring with many different bodies, he noted.

Until this process is completed, the city will desist from fining businesses that continue to operate on Shabbat in contravention of the bylaws, he added.

Last week, the court criticized the way the municipality has enforced the bylaw banning certain types of businesses from opening on the Shabbat. For years, the city has not prevented such businesses from opening on Saturdays, but it has fined them for breaking the law. The major supermarket chains could absorb the fines, so they continued to open on Shabbat. But owners of small grocery stores and kiosks were forced to shut.

The court said it was unacceptable for the city to essentially tolerate lawbreaking and gave it 60 days to consider seeking closure orders against businesses that breach the bylaw regularly. But it stressed that the city could instead opt to amend the bylaw to let businesses open on Shabbat, if municipal officials believe the city’s character justifies doing so.

Huldai rejected the court’s criticism of how the city has acted until now, saying its policy was a fair compromise.

“In its enforcement policy on Shabbat, the city has followed [Theodor] Herzl’s line by being more concerned for its residents’ quality of life than for diligently observing Shabbat,” he wrote. “But Shabbat in Tel Aviv-Jaffa has been preserved. The city rests, and the decisive majority of the commercial activity that characterizes it during the week does not take place on Shabbat. Out of over 50,000 businesses, only a few hundred are open on Shabbat.

“The negligible income from fines on such businesses is nothing compared to the expense of actually enforcing them,” he continued. “But the enforcement itself created a reality that the public can live with, and there have been no protests or clashes. In practice, anyone can enjoy their day off as they choose.”

Following the Supreme Court decision, Haaretz queried city council members and found that a clear majority favors changing the bylaws to let businesses that sell food open either fully or partially on Shabbat. But it does not appear that Huldai intends to propose such changes before October’s municipal elections.

“We are dealing with a serious and important issue for the future of Israeli society that has implications that go beyond the boundaries of Tel Aviv-Jaffa,” Huldai wrote. “Haste and empty slogans should be avoided. The process of preparing a new municipal bylaw on an issue such as this takes many months. It’s necessary to hold orderly deliberations and consultations with professionals and jurists, in cooperation with all sectors of the populace and government ministers.”

But the opposition in the city council is calling for a solution as quickly as possible. Reuven Ladiansky, who heads the green faction, Let Live, and is also running for mayor, told Haaretz following the Supreme Court ruling that the city must change the bylaw immediately. He had demanded that a proposal to change the bylaw be submitted as early as last night’s city council meeting.

“The status quo in Tel Aviv is that supermarkets, grocery stores and kiosks are open on Shabbat, and this must continue,” he said. “Otherwise, the Supreme Court ruling creates a new reality in this city and harms our perception of a free and liberal city. We cannot tarry and wait to see what happens in the election. Leadership and courage are needed to do it immediately.”