Hundreds of Secular Israelis Protest Enforcement of Shabbat Laws Shuttering Businesses on Weekends

Southern town of Ashdod has become battleground for new bid to enforce ban on commerce during Jewish day of rest; mayor scrambles to cool tensions

Hundreds of secular Israelis protest in Ashdod enforcement of Shabbat laws shuttering businesses on weekends. March 10, 2018
\ Ilan Assayag

Hundreds of residents of the southern Israeli port town of Ashdod demonstrated Saturday evening outside city hall to protest municipal policy regarding the closure of businesses on Shabbat.

The protest came despite Mayor Yehiel Lasry’s announcement last week that he would no longer enforce the municipal bylaw closing shopping malls from sundown Friday to after sundown Saturday.

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Lasry said that municipal inspectors would focus on businesses near synagogues and religious neighborhoods that open on the Jewish Sabbath.

Guy Sa’ar, one of the leaders of the protest, told Haaretz that despite the mayor’s declaration, they are continuing to protest because “the residents are worried and they don’t understand the mayor’s changing versions.”

Sa’ar said the mayor was apparently trying to survive politically until the next election, after which he would go back to the previous enforcement of Shabbat closures.

“At first Lasry wrote us on Facebook that he was obliged to enforce the grocery stores law,” Sa’ar said, referring to a new law that bans most stores from operating on the Sabbath.

“Then he wrote us that there’s a municipal bylaw and that he had to enforce that, too. Then he wrote us that a verdict was handed down two years ago that requires the city to enforce [closures] equally and therefore he had to hand out fines. In the end he wrote us about a peace plan. So what happened all of a sudden? What changed? Now he doesn’t have to enforce the verdict or the grocery store law or the municipal bylaws?” Sa’ar said.

Lasry said Wednesday that the city’s largest malls, Big Fashion and Star Center, would no longer be issued fines or warning letters, adding that he had instructed inspectors to focus their efforts on grocery stores near religious areas.

Lasry also said the extensive enforcement the city has carried out over the past few months was meant to restore the city’s enforcement capabilities.

According to Lasry, the Ashdod Magistrate’s Court ruling from May 2016, which stated that the municipality was not treating all businesses equally with regard to Sabbath hours, enforcing closures for give delicatessens but allowing other shops to remain open. Judge Yehuda Lieblein noted in his ruling that the city had apparently been enforcing Sabbath closure on those businesses because they sold nonkosher food.

“It is hard to shake the impression that the municipality’s new enforcement ‘policy’ focused businesses managed by people from the Former Soviet Union and that their products were not kosher,” the judge said.