ASHDOD – Life in Israel hasn’t been easy for Inessa Vasilevitsky, a factory worker who immigrated from Russia 28 years ago. But only now has she felt compelled to take to the streets.
Rushing between errands earlier this week, Vasilevitsky took a moment to explain her change of heart. “I work six days a week – often into the late afternoon on Friday, by which time stores are closed. How is somebody like me supposed to do food shopping once all the shops are shut down here on Shabbat?”
Vasilevitsky was among some 2,000 residents of this southern coastal city who came out to protest last Saturday night against a new law that will close most stores in Israel on the Jewish Sabbath. The so-called supermarket bill, passed into law by the tiniest of margins two weeks ago, was actively pushed by Interior Minister Arye Dery, head of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Shas party.
It was the second Saturday in a row that protesters – many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union – congregated outside Ashdod City Hall to vent their anger over this new law, which gives the interior minister the authority to overrule municipal bylaws pertaining to Shabbat and prevent the opening of grocery and convenience stores from sundown on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The law was supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party.
Vasilevitsky echoes the sentiments of many Russian-speaking immigrants here when she warns there will be a political price to pay. “I will never ever vote for Netanyahu,” she says, “he does nothing for us.” The next time Israel holds a national election, she says, she plans to vote for Yesh Atid – the centrist opposition party that became Israel’s second-largest party five years ago on promises it would fight religious coercion. Her two elderly friends, who barely speak Hebrew, nod in agreement.
“Lapid, Lapid,” they say, referring to the party’s chairman, Yair Lapid.
Indeed, according to recent polls, Yesh Atid would draw as many, if not more, votes than Likud if a Knesset election were held today.
The Shabbat routine
For more than a year now, demonstrations have been held every Saturday night to protest government corruption. At the beginning of December, their location moved from Petah Tikva – a sprawling city situated in central Israel – to Tel Aviv, where the number of protesters has naturally grown.
Although smaller in scale, the Ashdod protests could prove more dangerous for Netanyahu: Unlike Tel Aviv, Ashdod is his base and has long been a right-wing stronghold. In the last national election, in 2015, right-wing parties won more than two-thirds of the vote here. Netanyahu’s Likud alone captured almost a third, followed by Yisrael Beiteinu – the party headed by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman that draws most of its support from Israel’s Russian-speaking population.
Although merely a half-hour drive from Tel Aviv and one of Israel’s largest cities with a population of some 225,000, Ashdod still tends to be considered part of the geographical periphery. The city absorbed many newcomers during the mass immigration wave from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and roughly one of every three residents here today is a Russian speaker. Indeed, after Haifa, Ashdod boasts the largest number of Russian speakers in Israel.
Having come from a part of the world where they were prohibited from practicing their religion, the overwhelming majority of these immigrants are not observant Jews. For them, Shabbat is a day to go to the beach, catch a movie or shop. For some, it is even a regular workday. Indeed, many of the stores open here on the Sabbath are run by these immigrants.
But Ashdod is also home to many Haredim – now about 20 percent of the city’s population – who enjoy considerable clout in city hall.
Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist and co-author of “The Million that Changed the Middle East,” a book that explores the effects of the FSU immigration wave on Israeli society, says it is still too early to predict how things will play out. But the fact Russian speakers have turned out in large numbers to protest the government is significant, she says, and should be of concern to the prime minister.
“This is not a group of people who naturally take to the streets,” Galili says. “They don’t tend to believe that individuals can affect change, and their leaders don’t encourage protests.” As she notes, Russian speakers were conspicuously absent from the huge social-justice protests of summer 2011 – even though, as members of the Israeli middle class, they had a major stake in the movement’s success.
Since then, though, a new generation of Russian speakers – immigrants who came to Israel as children and the Israeli-born children of immigrants – has emerged. Members of what has come to be known as “Generation 1.5” came of age in Israel and are far less inclined to shy away from activism than their parents, Galili says.
Janna Bosin and Svetlana Froimovich typify this generation. Both in their early forties, they immigrated to Israel as children from Ukraine. Stylishly dressed and coiffed, they are breaking for lunch at Cancun, an upscale Ashdod eatery that specializes in nonkosher delicacies like mussels.
“What is happening in our city is horrifying,” says Bosin, sipping an aperitif. “We are being told, against our will, how to spend our one day of rest.” Froimovich, meanwhile, calls it “completely unjustified religious coercion.”
Asked whom they will vote for in the next election, both women respond as though the question were rhetorical. “Yesh Atid, obviously,” they say in unison. To drive home the point, Froimovich adds: “If I could cast 10 ballots, I would vote 10 times for Lapid.”
Last Shabbat, Lieberman paid a visit to the Big Fashion mall at the edge of town to show solidarity with shopkeepers recently put on notice for staying open on Shabbat. Matis, a popular delicatessen whose specialty dish is a herring baguette sandwich, was among those shops on the hit list.
“Shabbat is our busiest day,” notes Yael Iluz, a 23-year-old shift manager who has been working at Matis for the past four months. “We get customers from all over the country lining up out the door here on Shabbat.”
Iluz, who was born and raised in Ashdod, now studies at a design school in Tel Aviv and plans to move permanently to the bigger city once she graduates. “It’s such a shame, because Ashdod had really started to take off and was drawing lots of tourists,” she says. “But now we have this new law, which will close everything down on Shabbat. So who’s going to want to come here?”
Strolling around the mall with their granddaughter, longtime Ashdod residents Bluma and Arnon Schwartz say they haven’t participated in the protests – but only because they had prior commitments. “This week, we will definitely be there,” vows Bluma, a retired school principal.
She adds: “Our mayor has sold us out to the ultra-Orthodox, because they were the ones who put him in power.”
Asked whether they consider themselves secular Jews, her husband responds affirmatively. But his wife begs to differ. “We’re not secular – we’re traditional,” she says. “I light candles on Shabbat, we celebrate the Jewish holy days and keep kosher. I just won’t have other people telling me how to spend my Shabbat.”
On the other edge of town, in a predominantly Russian-speaking neighborhood, Igor Pyatkovsky is purchasing cake at a small bakery where all the signs are in Russian. “Nobody is going to tell me what I can do and when I can do it,” the retired assembly-line worker says, explaining his decision to take to the streets last Saturday night.
Ever since moving to Israel from Ukraine in 1994, Pyatkovsky has always voted for Likud. Will he next time as well? “That’s a personal question,” he responds. “I’m not going to answer it.”
Elena Vinitzky, a violinist and music teacher also born in Ukraine, is more forthcoming. “In the last election I voted for Lieberman,” she says. “Now, I’m debating between Lieberman and Lapid.”
As she pulls out of the parking lot, she tries to explain why she is feeling more radicalized these days. “I have nothing against religion,” she says, “but just like I don’t tell the ultra-Orthodox how to live, they shouldn’t be telling me how to live.”
Idi, a fish and seafood restaurant located in the industrial zone, is an Ashdod institution that has been drawing diners from around the country, especially on Saturdays, for the past 30 years. Proprietor Idi Israelovitz, who has lived most of his life in the city, says the recent protests surprised even him. “Ashdod is the type of place where people tend to just go with the flow,” he says.
Even though he thinks the new Shabbat shopping ban “stinks,” he hasn’t attended the protests and doesn’t plan to, either. “My way of protesting,” says Israelovitz, “is to keep this place operating on Shabbat.”