New Tel Aviv Bylaw Will Allow Just 164 Groceries to Open on Shabbat

Israel government interfering in Tel Aviv's affairs in ways even British Mandate authorities didn't, says mayor Huldai.

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A Tel Aviv supermarket, June 30, 2014.
A Tel Aviv supermarket, June 30, 2014.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The Tel Aviv city council on Sunday night passed a new bylaw under which 164 supermarkets and kiosks will be permitted to open on Shabbat.

Mayor Ron Huldai criticized Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar for refusing to approve the version passed by the municipality six months ago, allowing the 300 such businesses in the city that now stay open on Friday night and on Saturday to continue operating.

“Many powers touching on life in our city, unfortunately and frustratingly, are not in our hands, Huldai said. “But we didn’t expect that in a place where even the [British] Mandate high commissioner allowed the city council to decide, someone would come [representing] the State of Israel and grossly interfere in our democratic decisions.”

Huldai said the more expanded bylaw was balanced and reflected the situation that had existed in the city and that most of its residents want.

Under the new bylaw, Shabbat opening permits will only be issued to businesses on main streets in areas where the population is mostly young and nonreligious. Sa’ar has already approved the part of the new proposal allowing establishments in the Jaffa and Tel Aviv ports and in Hatahana, in south Tel Aviv, to obtain Shabbat permits.

Under the draft bylaw rejected by Sa’ar, supermarkets and kiosks with up to 800 square meters of floor space were eligible for a Shabbat permit. The new version limits the maximum size to 500 square meters.

The permits will be valid for a period of two years, and assigned by geographical area: “Old north” Tel Aviv will have a quota of 45 permits, while the city center, the eastern part of the city, Jaffa and the “new north,” north of the Yarkon River, will receive 42, 13, 12 and 11 permits, respectively. In each area, one-quarter of the permits will be issued to supermarkets exceeding 150 square meters of floor space and offering a larger variety of products.

If the number of applications in any area exceeds the permit quota, a lottery will be held among eligible applicants. Alternatively, if a majority of applicants agree to the arrangement, businesses can take turns opening on Shabbat.

Preference will be given to main thoroughfares, including Ibn Gabirol, Allenby, Ben-Yehuda, Dizengoff and Hayarkon streets, and Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa. The mayor will be authorized to withhold permits from otherwise eligible businesses that are adjacent to a synagogue or in a largely religious neighborhood.

The preamble to the bylaw explains that its purpose is to “preserve the special character of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays as days of rest and recreation.” It also notes that it will apply to only 164 out of the 52,600 businesses operating in Tel Aviv, and only to supermarkets and kiosks of a size that would not create a disruption or excessive activity. The size restriction — 500 square meters at most — was designed to limit the extent of commercial activity on Shabbat.

City Councilor Mickey Gitzin, who is also the executive director of Israel Hofshit (Be Free Israel), a religious-freedom advocacy group, said before the council passed the bylaw that it “quite significantly reduces the number of businesses open on the Sabbath in Tel Aviv and thus prevents the day from becoming just like any other day. On the other hand, it provides a good-enough solution for city residents who need a bottle of water or milk or anything else on Shabbat.”

A group representing small businesses and supermarkets that do not open on Shabbat and that has been lobbying against Sabbath openings in the city called the bylaw “bizarre,” and argued that no such lottery existed elsewhere in the country. The group also said the bylaw’s provisions favored larger businesses.

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