Israeli Towns Make Last-ditch Effort to Counter Law Forcing All Businesses to Close on Shabbat

Ultra-Orthodox parties in the government coalition are working to to shut down a bill permitting Shabbat openings, but some cities are trying to beat them to the punch

A grocery store in Holon, Israel, on January 1, 2017
David Bachar

Six municipalities are currently working to enact bylaws that would allow some businesses to open on Shabbat before the Knesset passes a law that would let the interior minister veto such bylaws.

The so-called Supermarket Bill, which was demanded by the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition and has so far been approved by the Knesset in a preliminary vote, allows the interior minister to veto any subsequent municipal bylaw allowing businesses to open on Shabbat. However, it is not retroactive, so any such bylaw passed before the bill becomes law will remain in force.

The Rishon Letzion city council was slated to approve such a bylaw Monday night. Givatayim’s city council had also planned to discuss such a bylaw Monday night, but was barred by a restraining order issued by the Tel Aviv District Court earlier in the day. The other towns considering such bylaws are Holon, Modi’in, Herzliya and Ramat Gan.

On Monday, the court gave Givatayim two days to respond to a petition arguing that the invitation to the city council meeting was sent out just four days ago, whereas the law requires 10 days’ advance notice of any meeting where a new bylaw is to be discussed. The petition was filed by a merchants’ association, an organization called the Coalition for Shabbat Equality and three Knesset members from the governing coalition.

That same day, Holon Mayor Moti Sasson announced that he would submit a bylaw to the city council in another two weeks to allow about 40 grocery stores, convenience stores and kiosks, which are currently open on Shabbat without any authorization in law, to remain open even after the Supermarket Bill is enacted. “I intend to do everything in my power to preserve the status quo in the city,” he said. The proposed bylaw will restrict commercial activity on Shabbat to certain streets and neighborhoods.

Modi’in is also working on a bylaw that would legalize the status quo, including by allowing nightclubs and sports centers to open on Shabbat. But businesses would have to apply for a municipal permit to open on Shabbat, and the mayor would be able to reject their application for various reasons, including environmental considerations, preventing disturbance to the neighbors and maintaining a given neighborhood’s religious character.

The proposed bylaw also states that no more than one supermarket or kiosk will be able to open in any mall located in a residential area. If several businesses apply for permits, they will have to take turns opening on Shabbat.

Rishon Letzion and Givatayim have proposed almost identical bylaws. Both would allow grocery stores to open on Shabbat on specified streets in commercial districts, and would allow sporting activities on Shabbat and all holidays except Yom Kippur and the evening of the Tisha B’Av fast. Neither gives preference to businesses that are already open on Shabbat in violation of existing law; any business that meets the specifications will be able to open.

The explanatory notes to both bylaws say the proposal “is proportionate and strikes a reasonable balance which properly weighs the competing values and interests.” They add that the goal is to allow restaurants, supermarkets and kiosks to open in commercial areas and along major arteries “where there’s a clear public need for them to open,” while continuing to restrict the opening of such businesses in other areas.

They also stress that the proposals “are not a reflection of the existing situation,” but rather the product of a complex process of weighing various factors, with the goal of enabling all residents of the city “to live in it according to their own religions, beliefs, needs and desires, in the spirit of tolerance which characterizes the city.”

About a month ago, 58 mayors sent a letter opposing the Knesset bill to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Interior Minister Arye Dery. The signatories, who included mayors from two parties in the governing coalition, Likud and Kulanu, charged that the bill would “severely harm” Israelis and “drastically alter the status quo regarding commercial activity on Shabbat in localities throughout the country.”

The letter was signed by the mayors of most major cities, including Tel Aviv, Rishon Letzion, Modi’in, Netanya, Petah Tikva, Be’er Sheva, Holon, Ramat Gan, Kfar Sava, Herzliya, Hadera, Ra’anana, Eilat, Tiberias and Dimona. The two notable exceptions were Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav.

Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay cited this municipal backlash when he spoke out against the law on Monday. Speaking at a meeting of MKs from Zionist Union, the joint ticket of which Labor is the major component, Gabbay said, “One after the other, local communities are rising up and telling the government, ‘Let us run our lives as we please; don’t force us into a life that isn’t suitable for us.’

“In Givatayim, there are 20 supermarkets that have been open for years,” Gabbay continued. “Does anyone really think they’ll be closed? That the public will accept this? I warn the coalition, reality will blow up in the Supermarket Law’s face. This is a rule the public won’t be able to live with.

“We’re in favor of Shabbat as a day of rest and a day that’s different, and we’re in favor of anyone who works on Shabbat getting what he deserves by law and even more. But we’re also in favor of communities deciding whether or not they want supermarkets and whether or not they want public transportation on Shabbat,” he concluded.

The liberal religious Zionist organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah also opposes the bill. “The Supermarket Law is a double mistake,” said Tani Frank, coordinator of the group’s religion and state projects. “First, even its sponsors know it won’t survive a High Court challenge,” he said. “If tomorrow morning, a local government seeks to amend its law in line with the Tel Aviv model and the interior minister doesn’t approve it, it will go to the High Court and claim discrimination.

“Second, it’s bad for Shabbat. Had it never been born, mayors would never have dreamed of enacting legislation allowing businesses to open within their jurisdictions; they would have continued the local dialogue that makes coexistence possible.”