Synagogue Reopenings Set Off Rebellion Among Coronavirus-hit Israeli Retailers

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A shuttered store with a 'for rent' sign in Tel Aviv, October 2020.
A shuttered store with a 'for rent' sign in Tel Aviv, October 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The coronavirus cabinet’s decision on Thursday to allow synagogues to reopen while most retail stores must remain closed may have set off a rebellion among merchants, including a vow by Big Shopping Centers that it would open its strip malls on Monday.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein added fuel to the fire Sunday when he said in a Facebook post that the rise in Israel’s R number – the average number of people that each infected person will infect – rose to 0.75 from 0.7 over the weekend, precluded a rapid reopening of the economy.

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Edelstein said, addressing retailers, that he “understands your problems” but warned that if the government moves too quickly it risked pushing Israel into a third lockdown, pointing to the situation developing in Europe. The Health Ministry, meanwhile, reported that the rates of positive results for COVID-19 tests had risen sharply to 5% early Sunday from 2.8% the day before.

Edelstein’s remarks came less than two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered some hope to Israel’s embattled retailers, saying he might move forward the date for reopening storefronts, now planned for next Sunday, if the coronavirus infection rate fell.

It is too early to say whether the latest rises mark the start of a trend, but the latest figures and Edelstein’s remarks indicate that an earlier reopening is not in the cards right now and that follow-on opening, such as allowing shops to open in enclosed shopping malls, will also be delayed.

“The health minister has become a slave to a framework he designed, so that any connection it has with logic has become entirely coincidental,” said Shachar Turjeman, chairman of the Brill Group, whose retail chains include Gali, Nine West, Timberland and Lee Cooper.

Brill has an annual turnover of 550 million shekels ($161.5 million). The group lost 10 million shekels in the first quarter and recorded a wafer-thin profit of 3.5 million in the second. It has received just 200,000 shekels of aid from the government. “If they’re not going to compensate us, they should let us reopen,” Turjeman said.

“I will open the group’s stores in strip malls on the day the state determines street-facing stores can open,” Turjeman warned.

Chai Galis, the CEO of BIG, a publicly traded company that operates some 26 shopping centers, told his tenants in a letter Sunday, “We are tired of feeling like suckers.”

Referring to the government’s traffic light system classifying cities by their rates of coronavirus infection, Galis said, “We’ve run out of patience to support everyone instead of the government. Therefore, from November 2 we will reopen stores in open-air in ‘green’ cities only, and we will charge rent and full management fees.”

Factory 54, an apparel chain, said it planned to reopen its street-facing stores on Monday.

This isn’t the first time that Israel’s big retail chains have threatened to defy the government’s closure order, but until now they have pulled back from actually acting. However, this time, said Turjeman, the industry was no longer engaging in empty threats.

Turjeman said warnings like that, from industry leaders, not just small-business owners, showed the depth of the rebellion in the sector. “Everyone [in the retail sector] has gone from frustration to despair, and are close to breaking all the rules. If public companies, such as Fox and Castro, are saying they’re going to break the law on Sunday, it shows that they do not understand what’s happening. The government has a few days until there is an incendiary fire that cannot be extinguished.”

Turjeman, who is a member of the executive committee of the Association of Apparel and Catering Chains, whose 400 business members include Israel’s leading retailers, such as Fox, Castro-Hoodies and Golf, called out Edelstein for his hypocrisy for resigning from his post as Knesset speaker rather than obeying a High Court of Justice order to hold an election for the post.

“This is a minister who, when he was Knesset speaker grossly violated a High Court decision, so he’s the last one who can call on us to observe or not observe government guidelines,” said Turjeman. Noting that he is married to Irina Nevzlin, a daughter of Russian-Israeli billionaire Leonid Nevzlin, Edelstein was personally insulated from the economic fallout of continued coronavirus restrictions.

In a written response, Edelstein’s office said: “We are holding discussions and providing answers to every claim made in a businesslike and respectful manner, but we won’t respond to this literal sewage.”

Among small, independent merchants, the rebellion is also spreading. Some shop owners have already opened their doors in recent weeks and many others are expected to join them this week after, Abir Kara, founder of ‘I am Shulman,’ a group that represents small-business owners and the self-employed, called on small business owners to reopen their stores on Monday.

“The game is over and so is our patience. We have contributed enough to the country. Go out and make a living, sisters and brothers. Have you been fined? An entire law firm is at your disposal,” said Kara in a Facebook post. Until now, his group has called on store owners to object the directives.

However, since his group made its announcement Saturday night, the government has said it would be doubling, to 10,000 shekels, fines for stores that opened in violation of directives.

“I’m seething,” said Michal Oron-Azani, the owner of Michal Designers Boutique in the town of Binyamina, south of Haifa. “I understood why we needed a lockdown, even if I think we wouldn’t have needed it if the health care system hadn’t been starved [for resources] over the years. The minute they began to lift the lockdown, I don’t get why street-facing stores haven’t been able to reopen in a framework that doesn’t create a risk for ourselves or our customers.”

She agreed that the decision allowing synagogues to reopen but not shops was unjust. “So I’m joining the call of Shulmans, ‘There is a limit to our patience.’ We’re no longer willing to play by the Health Ministry’s rules. If they fine us, I’ll go to court and I hope the judge will appreciate how illogical it is.”

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