Israeli Ministers Oppose Bill That Would Prevent Tel Aviv Shops From Opening on Shabbat

Economy chief says 'people should live their lives the way they want' while justice minister concedes that 'Tel Aviv can’t be changed'

Dizengoff Street in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Eyal Toueg

Two ministers from the governing coalition have voiced opposition to legislation being used to prevent grocery stores in Tel Aviv opening on Shabbat.

Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen (Kulanu) said Saturday he would oppose any bill on the subject. “I won’t vote for a law that bypasses the High Court of Justice” on the matter.

Speaking at an event in Holon, Cohen said: “I don’t think there needs to be legislation on matters of religion. People should live their lives the way they want without bothering each other, maintaining the status quo. I’m against religious coercion.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said she did not think the food stores in Tel Aviv could be prevented from opening on Saturdays.

She said there was “consensus” among lawmakers from her Habayit Hayehudi party “that Tel Aviv can’t be changed. The question is what about other cities.”

In an interview with Channel 2 TV’s “Meet the Press,” Shaked said Interior Minister Arye Dery had proposed amending the legislation governing municipal bylaws to the situation before 1988, so that all municipal bylaws involving Shabbat would be subject to the interior minister’s approval.

In recent days, the ultra-Orthodox parties have formulated a bill that would prevent other municipalities from adopting the bylaw approved by Tel Aviv City Hall, which allows 160 food stores and businesses to open on the Sabbath. The bill would require the interior minister’s approval of all municipal bylaws involving the opening of businesses and institutions on days of rest.

The legislation came in response to a recent High Court of Justice ruling confirming the legality of a Tel Aviv bylaw allowing some businesses to operate on Shabbat.

All the United Torah Judaism and Shas lawmakers signed the bill, as did some members of Habayit Hayehudi. For the bill to become law, the ultra-Orthodox parties will have to win the support of the rest of the coalition, including Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu, which supports the opening of businesses on the Sabbath because the coalition agreement prohibits changing the status quo without the support of the entire coalition.

The UTJ and Shas bill will be moved forward together with a government-sponsored bill formulated by the Interior Ministry, which seeks to give the interior minister the authority to strike down municipal bylaws and have implications for other cities – such as the one approving the opening of businesses on the Sabbath. Dery also wants the government to approve an initiative to increase enforcement of the law governing employment on official days of rest.

According to the explanatory remarks accompanying the new bill, the High Court broke the status quo by approving the municipal bylaw allowing shops in Tel Aviv to operate on the Sabbath. The High Court issued its ruling, the remarks stated, “although it was clear the interior minister opposed this and had informed the Tel Aviv municipality he was delaying approval of the law.”

The court’s decision “constitutes serious interference of the judicial branch with the executive branch,” the remarks stated.

According to the framers of the bill, the bylaw “grants permission to greedy tycoons to enrich themselves on the day of rest at the expense of their junior employees, who instead of spending their weekly day of rest with their families must forego it and work in the supermarket chains owned by the wealthy.”

The bill’s backers said that in most Western countries commercial premises are closed on the weekly day of rest, for the well-being of society. They presented quotes by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as well as poet Haim Nahman Bialik and early Zionist leader Ahad Ha’am in favor of a rest day on the Sabbath.