State Ordered to Decide on Bylaw Permitting Tel Aviv Businesses to Open on Sabbath

High Court gives interior minister three months to make the call on bylaw that would allow dozens of businesses to open on Sabbath, Jewish holidays.

Ilan Lior
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A branch of the AM:PM convenience store chain in Tel Aviv.
A branch of the AM:PM convenience store chain in Tel Aviv. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ilan Lior

The gave Interior Minister Silvan Shalom three months to decide whether to approve a that would allow dozens of Tel Aviv businesses to , two years after it ordered the municipality to either enforce the municipal bylaw against such commercial activities or change it.

Since that ruling there had been several attempts to settle the matter. In the spring and summer of 2014, the Tel Aviv municipality passed two versions of a bylaw that would allow various businesses to open. Parts of the first version, which would have allowed 300 supermarkets and kiosks up to 800 square meters in size to open, were struck down in June 2014 by then-minister Gideon Sa’ar, who said he believed it allowed a disproportionate amount of commerce and harmed “the national and social aspect of the Sabbath, a central facet of the public sphere.”

Soon after Tel Aviv passed another, more limited version of the bylaw in August, which would allow only 164 supermarkets and kiosks up to 500 square meters in size to open, Sa’ar announced that he planned to take a break from politics and leave a final decision on the matter to his successor, Gilad Erdan. But Erdan never addressed the issue, nor has Shalom, in office only a month and a half, expressed his position.

Court President Miriam Naor and Justices Daphne Barak-Erez and Esther Hayut heard a number of petitions on the issue yesterday; two petitions by small grocery owners against the amended bylaw approved last August; a petition by Tel Aviv’s Sarona compound, demanding that its businesses be allowed to open on Saturday and holidays; and another petition by the municipality itself, arguing that the interior minister had no authority to intervene in its judgment about the Sabbath character of the city, and that even if he did, Sa’ar had not fulfilled his obligation to grant the city a hearing before striking down the earlier version of the bylaw and as a result, he decision was null and void.

Attorney Yisrael Leshem, representing the municipality, spent a great deal of time on this argument. “The Accreditation Law [of 1990, passed to give local authorities the right to decide on restricting business activity for religious reasons] specifically states that all these issues are the purview of the local authority and it is the body that should weigh what the desire of the city’s residents is,” he said. “The local authority is the elected body that balances between the desires of the city’s various streams. It can decide in which areas, that are more secular, certain activity will be permitted.”

Justices Naor and Barak-Erez both seemed sympathetic to this argument. “Is it indeed under the interior minister’s authority to say this isn’t the municipality’s business?” asked Naor. And Barak-Erez asked, “Shouldn’t the determination of a community’s way of life be given to the community?”

Attorney Dana Briskman, representing the interior minister, responded, “There is sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean that the character of the local authority isn’t taken into account.” She added, “The Accreditation Law didn’t rescind the authority that the central government had before, but gave the local councils more authority. That doesn’t mean that the authority lies solely with the local authorities.”