Tel Aviv Shops Seek to Fight Possible Shabbat Shutdown

Efforts are underway by ultra-Orthodox government minister Arye Dery to close all business in Tel Aviv on Shabbat except for in three locations, leaving potential legal room to argue discrimination.

An Israeli supermarket.
Alon Assayag

Supermarket owners in Tel Aviv plan to fight possible efforts by Interior Ministry Arye Dery of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to act to close supermarkets and kiosks in the city on the Sabbath other than in three entertainment complexes in the city — the Tel Aviv Port, the Jaffa Port and the Sarona complex.

Sabbath work in the Tel Aviv area has been in the spotlight lately. The Ayalon freeway in the city was shut down over Shabbat last month to permit improvements to the Hashalom train station. Last week, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, following protests from ultra-Orthodox politicians in his coalition, halted maintenance work on the rail line to Haifa, which in turn shut the line down until about 7 P.M. Sunday.

The operation of some Tel Aviv supermarkets on Shabbat is the focus of an unresolved legal dispute. A panel headed by Prime Minister’s Office Director General Eli Groner has examined a Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that permits some commerce on Shabbat.

Haaretz reported that Dery was advancing 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 at the three specific entertainment complexes or at convenience stores operating at gas stations in Tel Aviv.

Dery’s office said Haaretz’s report was “inaccurate” and that the minister “has yet to reach a final decision on the issue.”

Kobi Cohen, the CEO of the Super Yuda chain, which operates eight grocery stores in Tel Aviv that are open on Shabbat in Tel Aviv, told TheMarker that he has hired a law firm to look into the prospect that supermarket owners in the city could organize a petition to the High Court of Justice claiming that forcing them to close on the Sabbath would involve unequal treatment and an infringement on their freedom of occupation.

Ironically, a prior petition filed with the court by the owners of small stores in the city challenged a situation in which they said they were forced to stay open on Shabbat to compete with larger supermarkets that could better afford to pay the routine fines that the city was imposing at the time for being open on the Sabbath.

For his part, however, Cohen said: “It cannot be the they force me to close my business on Shabbat while a supermarket owner in Jaffa [which is part of a joint municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa] can operate on Shabbat because he is Arab or that at the Tel Aviv Port they can operate a grocery on Shabbat and I can’t. There is a lack of equality. They should either close everything or leave the situation as it is now, with everyone being able to decide if he opens on Shabbat. I of course support the second option.”

Groner’s committee is set to propose three alternatives for solving the legal and political dispute around the existing municipal bylaw, adopted by Tel Aviv in 2014. The three alternatives include a ratification of the Tel Aviv bylaw, which allows 160 defined businesses to operate on Saturdays, in addition to allowing activity at the entertainment complexes; 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.

Richard Haddad, who is one of the owners of the Super Lelo Hafsaka, which operates five locations on Shabbat in Tel Aviv, said: “We’re seeing the religious people start to control our lives and that won’t work for them. We will organize, the leading chains. We’ll demonstrate in front of the prime minister’s house, we’ll circulate petitions and this time they won’t be able to evade this. You need to understand that closing the groceries on Shabbat means the groceries’ economic collapse. My branches live from Shabbat to Shabbat,” he said.

It should be noted that the country’s major supermarket chains other than Tiv Ta’am are kosher and are not open on Shabbat, but in Tel Aviv, that provides an opportunity for the smaller grocery stores that do stay open.