From Safed to Ashdod, the Key Battlefields in Israel's 'Shabbat Wars'

From Safed in the north to Ashdod in the south, secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews are locked in a struggle over whether stores and leisure facilities should open on Shabbat. The fighting is fierce, but neither side can claim a decisive victory.

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An ultra-Orthodox prayer protest against the Big Fashion mall's Shabbat opening in Ashdod, May 2015.
An ultra-Orthodox prayer protest against the Big Fashion mall's Shabbat opening in Ashdod, May 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Jerusalem: Distance hampers the ultra-Orthodox struggle

About a year ago, the Yes Planet cinema complex opened in southern Jerusalem, with 15 movie screens operating seven days a week. In the decades-long battle over the opening of movie theaters in the capital on Shabbat, this was a knockout victory for the secular community.

Under the leadership of Mayor Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s Sabbath seems to be changing in character, despite ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) protests. Not far from Yes Planet, the First Station compound opened three years ago. It has restaurants, cafés, bike rentals, and more. It, too, is open on Shabbat. However, an attempt to open stores there encountered opposition and, currently, the shops aren’t allowed to open on the Sabbath.

There are also two, long-established movie theaters not far from the First Station — Lev Smadar and the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

The fact that this entire area is situated quite a distance from ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods has made it hard for the Haredim to mount effective protests against Shabbat operations. This has created a space in which the secular community can enjoy itself in ways that weren’t possible a few years ago.

The vast majority of businesses in Israel are small or medium-size, such as this grocery store in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

Additionally, some cafés and restaurants are now open in the center of town on Shabbat, including a large café in Independence Park, which the ultra-Orthodox unsuccessfully tried to prevent from opening.

But this doesn’t mean the ultra-Orthodox have given up the battle. At the moment, the Shabbat wars are being focused on eight small grocery stores operating in the downtown area.

Most of their weekend customers are tourists and migrant workers. Nevertheless, the municipality decided, about a year ago, to try to stop them from opening on Shabbat. The official reasons were instructions from the attorney general, combined with the claim that the ultra-Orthodox go through the downtown area en route to the Western Wall on Shabbat.

About a week ago, the city canceled the fines it had imposed on these stores for opening on Shabbat. However, it intends to replace the fines with indictments.

Another ongoing conflict between the Haredi and secular communities revolves around Shabbat activities in community centers. Like with several other battles, this one is being led by residents of the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood in southwestern Jerusalem. They’re seeking to screen films at the local community center on Shabbat, to the displeasure of ultra-Orthodox politicians.

Yet another war is being fought over efforts to open the Cinema City movie complex in Zichron Yosef on Shabbat. The secular community has lost this battle since the multiplex, situated near the Knesset, was opened some two years ago.

Ashdod: A secular victory

A mass prayer rally attended by thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Ashdod last year proved ineffective: The Big Fashion mall, home to over 120 stores, opens on Shabbat.

A Belz Hasid who lives in the city said he and his friends are disappointed that ultra-Orthodox councilmen didn’t threaten to resign from the ruling coalition over the issue. “We still don’t go there; it’s an abomination, in our view,” he said about the mall, situated near the city train station. “But aside from that, there’s no protest by the ultra-Orthodox community today.”

The Big Fashion mall in Ashdod.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The municipality and other players also failed in their attempts to shut stores that open on Shabbat via legal action. The issue reached the local magistrate’s court, which rejected the city’s request to close down the businesses on the grounds that it was engaging in selective enforcement.

Ashdod Magistrate’s Court Judge Yehuda Lieblein also ordered the municipality to alter its bylaws “in a way that will reflect the changes that have taken place in the city over the years, and provide an answer to the needs of all the city’s different population groups.”

In June, however, the owners of businesses that don’t open on Shabbat petitioned Be’er Sheva District Court and requested that it shutter some 230 stores that do open on the Sabbath. The petition was filed via an organization called the Coalition for Shabbat Equality.

Yavneh: Ice cream parlor on the front line

The Golda ice cream parlor was the first store to open on Shabbat in Yavneh’s Rogovin mall. Since its opening last year, the store’s owner, Ilan Cohen, has been repeatedly fined by the municipality. This has sparked protests by city residents — mainly in the form of buying ice cream on Shabbat.

The Golda ice cream parlor in Yavneh. Defied calls to close on Shabbat.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Last November, the municipality began legal proceedings to force the ice cream parlor to close on Shabbat. Rehovot Magistrate’s Court Judge Rina Hirsch literally suggested a “back-door” compromise, in which the parlor’s main door opening onto the neighborhood would be closed on Shabbat but access would be possible through a rear door. Subsequent hearings were repeatedly postponed, though, and a few months ago the court canceled proceedings.

Meanwhile, another four stores have followed in Golda’s footsteps and opened on Shabbat, marking a sweet victory for the secular community. But the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has vowed to continue fighting in the fast-growing city, situated some 29 kilometers (18 miles) south of Tel Aviv.

Bat Yam: Another Shabbat without soccer

A while back, Hapoel Tel Aviv owner Amir G. Kabiri decided to build a new, modern soccer stadium in Bat Yam. But in early July, the Bat Yam municipality — whose governing coalition includes Shas as a senior member — decided that any soccer stadium in the city would not be allowed to open on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, in line with the orders Shas councilmen received from the party’s Council of Torah Sages.

“All those who rejoiced over a modern stadium in the end got the Middle Ages,” wrote an opposition councilwoman, Katy Piasetzky (Meretz), on her Facebook page.

“It’s inconceivable that a secular city should forbid the playing of soccer on Shabbat and watching soccer on Shabbat,” added Piasetzky, who was one of the few council members to oppose the decision. “I hope the fans of every team won’t allow this to pass quietly.”

A Facebook page called “Soccer on Shabbat — the Battle” also railed against the decision.

“After they tried to abolish games on Shabbat, now the next stage has arrived — ultra-Orthodox politicians are closing our stadium on Shabbat,” a statement posted on the page said. “Our main fear is that this successful modus operandi will be imitated by ultra-Orthodox politicians in other secular cities as well. ... And what is this if not religious coercion?!”

Tel Aviv: Waiting for the court

The battle over businesses opening on Shabbat has been raging in Tel Aviv for over four years, but there’s still no end in sight. The driving force in this particular battle is not the ultra-Orthodox but owners of small grocery stores, who claim that by allowing big supermarket chains to operate around the clock, the municipality is permitting unfair competition and damaging their livelihood.

Tel Aviv District Court rejected the local store owners’ petition against the municipality’s decision, but the Supreme Court accepted their appeal. The justices said the city’s policy of not enforcing its own bylaws, which forbids businesses from opening on Shabbat, was unacceptable.

In response, the municipality drafted a new bylaw that would allow some 300 grocery stores and kiosks throughout the city to open on Shabbat. However, in June 2014, then-Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar refused to approve the new bylaw and ordered the city to make substantial changes. Sa’ar permitted stores to open in only three locations: Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv Port and a leisure compound in south Tel Aviv called Hatachana.

The bustling Tel Aviv Port: One of only three places allowed to open in the city on Shabbat.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The municipality then approved a more limited version of the bylaw, which would have allowed only about 160 stores to open on Shabbat. But Sa’ar’s successors, Gilad Erdan and Silvan Shalom, both tried to shift responsibility for approving the decision, while other ministers refused to pick up this hot potato.

In the end, the cabinet agreed to set up a committee of ministry directors general to make a decision on the matter. Yet this panel would also like to avoid making any decision and is, therefore, expected to submit a few different options to the cabinet. Ultimately, the issue is most likely to be settled in court.

Kfar Sava: New mall quickly becomes battlefield

In early summer, a new entertainment and shopping complex, Oshiland, opened in Kfar Sava (to the east of Tel Aviv). It was supposed to be open seven days a week, but the mall quickly became a source of conflict.

First, store owners in the city center feared that allowing the mall to open on Shabbat would hurt their business. So they asked the municipality to reconsider, arguing that letting Oshiland’s stores open on Shabbat violated the city’s bylaws and undermined equality of opportunity, since their own stores couldn’t open on Shabbat.

The Oshiland mall in Kfar Sava. Some residents warn against the city becoming "another Bnei Brak."Credit: David Bachar

Next, local rabbis joined the fight. Together with members of the Kfar Sava Religious Council, the rabbis also asked the mayor to prevent the mall from opening on Shabbat. Religious city residents even held a prayer rally opposite the mall entrance to protest its Shabbat policy.

Then, another group of residents responded by organizing a petition in favor of the mall’s opening on Shabbat. “We won’t let Kfar Sava turn into Bnei Brak,” the petition said, referring to the nearby ultra-Orthodox city. So far, some 2,150 residents have signed the petition.

Meanwhile, the municipality told the mall it has to obey the city’s bylaws, under which cafés, restaurants, theaters and movie theaters are allowed to open on Shabbat, but stores are not.

The mall’s CEO recently told TheMarker he isn’t a party to the matter, since Oshiland allows each store in the mall to decide for itself whether to close in accordance with the law or open on Shabbat and pay the fines.

Netanya: Not seeing stars

On July 7, Netanya’s Planetanya — a center of science, space and culture, including a planetarium and interactive science garden — opened to the public. The municipality sees the place as the crowning glory of its treatment of fostering sciences and technology in the city. It planned to open it on Shabbat as well, but in the tension between science and religion, religion won out. A few hours after Mayor Miriam Feirberg declared that the center would be open on the seventh day, the municipality announced that for technical reasons — the keys for operating the planetarium through a Shabbat clock — the center would remain closed.

Planetanya. Some residents are fighting to get the center opened on Shabbat.Credit: David Bachar

A protest by residents erupted following the announcement, and the municipality announced that it would examine ways to operate it without desecrating Shabbat — including selling tickets on weekdays and having non-Jews operate it on Saturdays.

No decision has been made, but Planetanya currently remains closed on Shabbat.

Residents haven’t surrendered, though, launching a Facebook page called “We want Planetanya Open on Shabbat.” About 1,000 people have joined the page so far. Social activists in Netanya began establishing a nonprofit that will work to open public institutions in the city on Shabbat, and organized cultural protest activity on the Planetanya grounds on Shabbat — including viewing the sun with telescopes and creating sun dials.

Tiberias: Pool on a low volume

The municipal pool in this city on the western bank of the Kinneret was rededicated in July, after being closed for five years. However, Haredim objected to the municipality’s decision to open the pool on Shabbat. “As long as the pool is open on Shabbat, it may not be used during the week and we have to exclude every leg from there, every man and woman,” read the newsletters and posters in the city’s Haredi neighborhoods. All were signed by several rabbis, among them the city’s chief rabbi.

The municipal pool at Tiberias. Open on Shabbat, but with the volume turned down.Credit: Gil Eliahu

About a week and a half before the official opening, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox held a prayer protest against the Shabbat opening, about 100 meters (328 feet) from the pool.

The municipality has listened to the Haredi protesters: Although it hasn’t closed the pool on Shabbat, it has lowered the volume of the PA system on Saturdays. The pool has operated this way throughout the summer.

Haifa: Strictly kosher mall

The last Shabbat war in Haifa was fought two years ago, when Rabbi Aryeh Blitental — a city councilman for United Torah Judaism — prevented the opening of Haifa Mall on Shabbat. Perhaps because Haifa boasts other entertainment alternatives, the move didn’t encounter huge resistance. Or perhaps the secular Jews just grew weary. Blitental’s previous fight to close the Grand Mall on Shabbat, in 2002, failed, even though it is adjacent to Haredi neighborhoods. According to Blitental, “Many people shun this mall because it is open on Shabbat.” Still, many of the stores remain open.

Safed: One closes, another opens

The entrance to the Country Club in Safed. Now closed on Shabbat, even if you want to lift weights.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The Country Club in Safed was established over 30 years ago, but local Haredim have only fought for its closure on Shabbat in recent years. Councilwoman Vicky Alkabetz recalls how, over two years ago, she and other secular Jews demonstrated every month on Shabbat evenings, opposite the Haredim, whose protests were expressed through prayer. The struggle ended in July with a defeat for the secular Jews, when it was finally decided to close the pool on Shabbat. Two weeks later, the Haredim noticed that the weights room was still operating and got that closed, too.

However, the ultra-Orthodox residents also suffered a defeat: In parallel to closing the Country Club pool, a new municipal pool was opened in the city’s northern quarter, which operates on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Nir Hasson, Ilan Lior, Noa Shpigel and Almog Ben Zikri contributed to this report.

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