A Divisive Shabbat in Tel Aviv

Residents and market workers are both split over city's reluctant decision to enforce law to close businesses on the Jewish holy day.

Ofra Edelman
Roy Arad
Zafrir Rinat
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Cashier Suhaila Kchile, left, working the register at am:pm in Tel Aviv, July 2, 2014.
Cashier Suhaila Kchile, left, working the register at am:pm in Tel Aviv, July 2, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ofra Edelman
Roy Arad
Zafrir Rinat

The recent decision by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar to strike down an amendment to the Tel Aviv’s bylaws allowing convenience stores and kiosks to remain open on Shabbat divided the city this week to those shouting “Shabbes!” and those shouting “Gevalt!”

While the law forbids such businesses being open on Shabbat, the municipality has sufficed with fines without closing them. After Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein called this policy “Israbluff”  – the perjorative term for the shenanigans of Israeli bureaucracy – last year, Tel Aviv sought to amend its bylaws to maintain the status quo.

Then came the interior minister and upset the apple cart. Sa’ar couched his decision in terms of the religious, national and social character of Shabbat. “The principle of a weekly day of rest – is a fundamental principle in our country,” he wrote, drawing on the likes of the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and national poet Haim Nahman Bialik. “It’s a gift of the people of Israel to all of humanity.”

The blow hit City Hall hard. Mayor Ron Huldai was furious. He asserted that Sa’ar was taking the city back decades and threatened to go to the High Court of Justice. The am:pm, Tiv Ta’am and Super Yuda chains joined in the threat. Still, the city was forced to issue closure warnings on Wednesday to businesses operating on Shabbat.

The three chains declared they would defy the warning and take legal action to fight the decision.

By Friday evening, it became apparent that the threat hovering over Tel Aviv had not come to be. A quick trip down central Allenby Street showed that the convenience stores and 24-hour chains were still open. Ultimately, municipal inspectors began handing out fines only on Saturday afternoon, fining some 10% of all stores open illicitly. The stores remained open.

Workers at the chains am:pm and Tiv Ta’am, joined the campaign, sporting t-shirts that read “This city can’t be stopped” and “Drafted to keep Tel Aviv’s Sabbath,” respectively.

Blind eye

Koby Bremer, chairman of the Forum of Kiosks and Minimarkets, entered the fray from his small store on the edge of Sheinkin Street as someone who does not remain open on Shabbat. In their petition to the court, he and others claimed that the city’s turning a blind eye to businesses breaking the law by opening on Shabbat was hurting the small kiosks. The court accepted their position, with Justice Miriam Naor ruling that if the city wanted to permit businesses to open on Shabbat it needed to do so through an explicit bylaw and not through merely issuing fines.

The city responded with its amendment, which Sa’ar consequently shot down precisely because it perpetuated the status quo. He argued the city was encouraging criminality.

As any decision touching on the explosive issue of religion and state promises to do, the minister’s decision set off a storm. Actress Gila Almagor responded that religious coercion was spreading like cancer.

Bremer praised Sa’ar for going against the grain and being willing to tell the truth even if it means taking flak. “All over the world, small businesses are like a flower,” he said. “In Tel Aviv they have become a burden. It’s easier for Huldai to attack me as a representative of religious coercion.”

Bremer said his motives were not religious but rather economic.

“The big shops can bear the fines, the kiosks can’t,” he said. “The big chains decimated the small businesses: Super Pharm did it to the pharmacies, Ace to the hardware stores, Steimatzky to the small book stores.” He stressed that the customers are the ones paying the price because stores open on Shabbat are more expensive in the name of freedom.

Shlomi Zemach, manager of the am:pm branch on Frenkel Street, says his staff has a variety of workers with different backgrounds, most of whom want to work on Shabbat. Suhaila Kchile, 20, who hails from Jaffa, says she actually likes working on Shabbat. “It passes the time. There are a lot of customers and work,” she says. “It also pays us well. It would be very hard without Shabbatot.”

According to Kchile, cashiers earn 23 shekels ($6.75) an hour during the week and 35 shekels an hour on Shabbat.

Kchile smiled when asked whether the solution couldn’t be found in raising cashier salaries for the rest of the week. “I don’t think they’ll raise it,” she said.

“I work every Friday night. It’s great income for me,” says Shelly Vaknin, who works at am:pm’s Herzl branch. Vaknin, 24, and a mother of three, also says her main consideration is financial. “If you only work Sunday to Wednesday, how much do you earn? It isn’t a must; it’s my choice to work on Friday, as long as it doesn’t hurt the home or my children,” she says. “It’s 150% salary. It’s another bonus. It’s significant on the 10th of the month (when most Israelis get paid) – it’s diapers, it’s Materna (baby formula), kindergarten (fees), food, taxes.”

At an am:pm on King George Street on Friday evening, one worker said that all the customers were interested to know what was happening. “At least 30 people have asked me today,” she said. “I think we need to hang a sign outside saying we’re open. As a Christian, this law annoys me. What if I want my day off to be Thursday?” she said, noting that most of the employees were there because they earn 150% over Shabbat. “If you work Friday and Saturday you can take home 5,000 shekels a month, but without weekends you’ll get slightly over 3,000 shekels,” she said.

“It’s a disaster. It’s just another step toward turning the country into a Halakhic state,” said Inbal Amir of Ramat Gan, who was shopping in the Frenkel branch. “They are taking away even the little time people have to buy milk for their home,” she said. “It’s supposed to be the only democracy in the Middle East, but that’s a little bit of a lie.”

Sharon Posner, a fellow shopper, added, “I fled Jerusalem because of these kinds of things. It’s a city that religion built and religion destroyed. It’s hard for me to believe and accept that it is happening in Tel Aviv.”

In contrast, Oren Zeiger, who was shopping in the Herzl branch, said, “Once there was no am:pm and nothing happened. We’ve turned the country into a labor camp.” Ezra Yitzhak, who was visiting the Sheinkin kiosk, said that “God gave the Shabbat to rest. So we don’t work like donkeys for one day. No one will go broke. You don’t need milk on Shabbat. Let them drink water.”

A religious kiosk owner on Yehuda Halevy Street who has worked there 40 years recalled how people used to rest every day between 2 P.M. and 4 P.M. “Now they want to open on Shabbat – you’ve gone overboard,” he said. “In the end we’ll be working on Yom Kippur.” He noted that people whose blood boils about religious coercion do not understand that the reverse is true.

Mony Levy, who manages a different kiosk on Sheinkin that is closed on Shabbat, says he is split. “On the one hand, changing the matter of opening stores on Shabbat is very hard,” he says. “People got used to it, but it bothers the small guys.” He recalls how he had to close two stores on Ibn Gvirol and Dizengoff because am:pm and Tiv Ta’am branches opened across from him, causing his turnover to dive 30%.

On Saturday afternoon, reports began to arrive of city inspectors issuing fines. Staff at the am:pm and Super Yuda branches on King George reported that the inspectors had handed them standard 730-shekel fines. They remained open, noting that they had received such fines in the past.

Some of the smaller convenience stores also received fines. “I already was fined, so why close?” said one worker at a store on King George, who added that the inspectors had arrived with a team of Channel 10 reporters who filmed the whole thing.

In total, inspectors handed out 30 fines, covering about 10% of the stores open illicitly on Shabbat.

Meanwhile, a neighbor entered the convenience store – Municipal Councilmember Miki Gitzin (Meretz). “I’m guessing that for the first two Saturdays they’ll only hand out fines, and afterward they’ll issue orders to close,” he said.

The seller is up in arms that the coffee shops next to him are permitted to remain open while his store is being forced to close.

“That’s entertainment and you’re commerce,” says Gitzin, explaining the law. “This isn’t entertainment?” asks the seller. “Believe me, it’s all money. They’re doing it due to money. I don’t know who’s profiting, but someone profits from everything around here.” 

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