Cabinet Votes in Support of Bill That Would Allow Closure of Shops on Shabbat

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Grocery store in Jerusalem open seven days a week
A file photo from 2016 of a grocery store in Jerusalem open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.Credit: Emil Salman

The cabinet voted to support legislation on Sunday that would give the interior minister the authority to repeal municipal bylaws and in the process prevent the opening of grocery stores on Shabbat.

The bill would only apply, however, to bylaws passed in the future, and therefore would not affect a Tel Aviv ordinance that allows grocery stores to remain open on the Jewish day of rest. The ordinance passed the muster from the High Court of Justice in October.

With the exception of the two cabinet ministers from Yisrael Beiteinu and Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant of Kulanu, who abstained in the vote, the entire cabinet voted in favor of the legislation, which still requires passage by the Knesset. Although Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beiteinu, expressed opposition last weekend to the bill, he did not exercise his veto to scuttle the bill.

Speaking in support of the bill at Sunday's cabinet session, Interior Minister Arye Dery, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said: "We want to maintain the status quo all over the country and prevent turning Shabbat into the national day of commerce. The Sabbath is more sacred to us, but we can't close the groceries in Tel Aviv. We just want what was to exist in the future, so, following the High Court of Justice ruling on the issue of Tel Aviv groceries, now groceries won't be opened on Shabbat around the country, and there won't be commerce [on the Sabbath] as there is in Paris, New York or London."

Late last month, following a dispute with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party over Sabbath maintenance work planned by Israel Railways, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the dispute had been resolved with an agreement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would promote such a bill.

Reacting to Sunday's cabinet vote, the leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, tweeted that the move was "another insulting bill involving religious coercion under the auspices of Netanyahu's political deal with the ultra-Orthodox."

In prior comments in opposition to the bill, Defense Minister Lieberman told a meeting of his Knesset faction that he would do everything possible to prevent the passage of the bill in the original form proposed by the Interior Ministry. "I go to the grocery on Shabbat. In Jerusalem, there are grocery stores that are open too," he said. Referring to an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, he said: "I don’t want to open groceries on Shabbat on Bnei Brak, and there is no reason to close groceries in Haifa or elsewhere," saying that it should depend on the nature of the local population and left to local authorities.

Fifty-eight mayors signed onto a letter protesting the proposed law. “The local governments vehemently oppose the bill in question, which seeks to change the existing relationship between the central government and local governments,” the mayors wrote, adding that the bill would cause “severe harm” to Israelis “by undermining local governments’ broad powers and drastically changing the status quo regarding business activity on Shabbat in local governments throughout the country.”

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