Ultra-Orthodox Parties Plan Next Battle: No Business on Shabbat

Crisis around railway work on Saturday could spark sweeping ban on shops, unless cabinet strikes down city bylaw before anticipated committee, High Court decisions.

A branch of the AM:PM convenience store chain in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

As Israel's political establishment tries to extricate itself from the crisis surrounding maintenance work at Israel Railways on the Sabbath, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is planning for the next step: a widespread campaign based on the principle, supported by United Torah Judaism as well, that businesses should be closed on the day of rest.

To that end, Interior Minister and Shas chairman Arye Dery has been trying in recent days to torpedo the recommendations of a professional committee, headed by the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, which examined a Tel Aviv municipality bylaw permitting the opening of businesses in that city on Saturdays.

Interior Minister Arye Dery during a visit to Ofakim, May 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Specifically, Dery is advancing a proposal that would involve a sweeping prohibition on the opening of businesses, including groceries and kiosks, while at the same time suggesting that the government not interfere in the municipality’s policy of avoiding enforcement of labor laws on the Sabbath in three specific locations in Tel Aviv, as well as in the convenience stores operating at local gas stations.

In response, Dery's office said Haaretz's report was "inaccurate" and that the minister "has yet to reach a final decision on the issue."

The committee, headed by the PMO's Eli Groner, is set to propose three alternatives for solving the legal and political dispute around the existing municipal bylaw, adopted by Tel Aviv in 2014. Four petitions against the bylaw have been filed recently with the High Court of Justice and in the coming weeks, the cabinet – unrelated to the crisis around railway operations this past weekend – will determine its position ahead of the court’s ruling.

Shopping on the Sabbath in Israel.
Alex Levac

For their part, the religious parties have rejected all three alternatives, demanding that the cabinet strike down the Tel Aviv bylaw even before the court issues its ruling. This suggestion has been championed by Interior Ministry director general Orna Hozman-Bechor, and has been accompanied by intensive discussions between Dery's office and the attorney general, in an attempt to defuse the next land mine on the road to defining the public nature of Sabbath observance in Israel.

The Orthodox parties are worried that last week’s confrontation surrounding maintenance work by Israel Railways on Shabbat – which was called off at the very last minute and sparked massive transportation problems – places them in a weak position ahead of the upcoming campaign surrounding the opening of businesses on Saturdays. Therefore, these parties hope a decision on the issue is reached at the Knesset and cabinet levels before the High Court rules, thus precluding Tel Aviv’s city hall from approving the granting of extensive permits to operate seven days a week.

Associates of Dery say that the municipal bylaw has set a dangerous precedent that will influence other local authorities across the country, which may also decide to allow widespread operation of businesses on the Sabbath in their jurisdictions.

Radical resolution

Alongside these efforts, Dery’s office has prepared a draft for a radical cabinet resolution, officially declaring Saturdays a day of rest and issuing a sweeping prohibition on the opening of businesses, including convenience stores and shopping centers, anchoring this resolution in major legislation. Shas says that this rather extreme proposal, so far held in check, with little chance of its being passed by the cabinet, will be advanced only if the efforts of the Orthodox parties to foil the recommendations of the Groner panel fail. Such a proposal will likely only be produced if there is a serious coalition crisis.

The three alternatives the professional committee proposes include a ratification of the Tel Aviv bylaw, which allows 160 defined businesses to operate on Saturdays, in addition to allowing activity in three defined areas (the Jaffa Port, the Tel Aviv Port and the Old Train Station market complex); a reduction in the total number of businesses allowed to remain open, or approval of the operating of convenience stores attached to gas stations or shopping areas, leaving open a limited number of groceries and kiosks on a rotating basis – such as exists for pharmacies.

Dery’s proposal is similar to the third option but is more stringent, forbidding the opening of even a limited number of groceries or kiosks. His aides explain that there will be no official arrangement for allowing convenience stores or businesses at the three above-mentioned areas to operate on Shabbat, rather the cabinet will passively assent to the de facto Tel Aviv municipal policy of not enforcing the law in these locations.

Moti Milrod

Dery’s bureau therefore sees the proposal as a compromise that will not totally shutter Tel Aviv on Saturdays. In effect, it would bring Tel Aviv precisely back to the situation that was based on a decision made by one of Dery's predecessors, Gideon Sa’ar: In 2014, he struck down a bylaw which permitted the opening of some 350 stores and groceries in Tel Aviv.

Sa’ar opposed the operation of stores on the Sabbath, and his move aroused the opposition of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and many city residents. The then-interior minister said, however, that he would not interfere with the city’s decision with regard to convenience stores and certain defined areas (such as Sarona or the ports).

Even before Dery took over at the ministry this past January, and after submission of several petitions to the High Court, a decision was made to set up a committee that would deal with this issue. Headed by Groner, it included directors general from the justice, economy and industry, and religious service ministries.

In light of the recent furor sparked by cancellation of railway work on Saturdays, one Tel Aviv official involved in discussions said that, “allowing an ultra-Orthodox minister to handle business on the Sabbath will lead to a civil war. No one will agree to that and it won’t pass quietly.” Attempts to present work on the day of rest as an issue that concerns values – relating to workers’ rights rather than as a religious issue – will also not succeed in the prevailing atmosphere, the official added.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz on a train to Be'er Sheva, 2012.
Moti Milrod

The ultra-Orthodox parties say that the dispute related to work in Tel Aviv on that day is not about the three specific commercial locations in the city that have been specified – they will be able to continue operating – rather about the other 160 businesses mentioned.

Averting a coalition crisis

As decisions on this fraught issue loom, the religious parties are now demanding that only the interior minister have the authority to grant exemptions when it comes to allowing business operations on the Sabbath.

In closed conversations, however, Dery has said that he prefers that the government collectively take responsibility for the issue by striking down the Tel Aviv municipal bylaw. Nevertheless, he expressed concerns about a possible confrontation between the ultra-Orthodox and the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beiteinu party in the coalition.

In any event, if the coalition manages to formulate a united stand on the issue, it will not involve ratification of the bylaw as it is worded now. A Shas official says that this would break up the coalition.

The Interior Ministry says that “our aim is to present the High Court with a collective government position opposing the Tel Aviv municipal bylaw regarding groceries and other stores in the city. This will be more powerful than opposition by just the interior minister. The aim is to determine a status quo without annoying citizens. Only if this doesn’t help will we put forth a proposal prohibiting the opening of any businesses, anchoring this in major legislation that will override municipal laws.”