Merchants Anxious as ultra-Orthodox Minister Wins Power on Shabbat Business

Cabinet votes to restore authority to the interior minister to make a decision after years of waffling on the issue.

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A woman rides past AM:PM, a 24-hour supermarket in Tel Aviv.
A woman rides past AM:PM, a 24-hour supermarket in Tel Aviv.Credit: AP

Supermarket owners in Tel Aviv said on Sunday they were worried about being barred from opening on Friday and Saturday after the cabinet voted to restore the authority to enforce the Sabbath Law to Interior Minister Aryeh Dery, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party.

The decision still requires approval of the Israeli parliament. After, the government plans to go to the High Court of Justice and ask it to delay a decision pending on the issue until it has held hearings and made a final decision.

Based on past remarks, Dery’s views on the matter are unclear. At least once he told a radio interviewer, “At the end of the day, the secular public will need to decide what kind of Shabbat it wants. We can’t force anyone to do something.”

Nevertheless, supermarket owners said they were pessimistic.

“There couldn’t be anything worse than Dery being the one who will decide the issue of businesses being open on Shabbat in Tel Aviv,” said Kobi Cohen, CEO of the Tel Aviv supermarket chain SuperYuda. He said Dery was too concerned about the ultra-Orthodox vote to allow businesses to open in tel Aviv.

“Now the only question is whether he will be ‘nice’ and allow places of entertainment to operate on the Sabbath, or decide that nothing can open in Tel Aviv on Saturday – but it’s clear what will be his decision regarding supermarkets and kiosks.”

The cabinet decision yesterday marks the latest development in a convoluted, politically fraught process that began in 2014 when the Tel Aviv municipality amended the bylaw to let groceries and kiosks operate on Saturdays. Gideon Sa’ar, the interior minister at the time, rejected the amendment, but approved another that allowed businesses to open Saturdays in the entertainment centers Tel Aviv Port, Jaffa Port and Old Train Station complex.

He avoided signing off on a decision before stepping down and neither did his successor, Silvan Shalom. In December 2015, authority on the matter was taken from the interior minister and given to a committee of ministry directors general who came back with three options last August. No action was taken on the plan and in the meantime a suit was filed with the High Court.

Tel Aviv municipal officials also expressed concern about Dery’s role. “The crux of the problem is that Dery is Haredi and represents the Haredi public. It will be very difficult for him to sign on to even a single store opening on Shabbat,” said Etai Pinkas, a member of the city council.

Adi Cohen, CEO of the Tiv Taam chain of supermarkets, which operates on Shabbat, said, “The status quo of the last several years reflects the needs of the religious and secular populations, and I’m confident it will be preserved.”

The amended Tel Aviv bylaw would have allowed 160 stores, including groceries, minimarkets, kiosks and gasoline station convenience stores, to operate on Shabbat – a smaller number than the estimated 285 that had been unofficially operating when it was passed.