Local Campaign to Close Ashdod Stores on Shabbat Goes to Court

Complaint focuses not on religion, but on unfair business competition.

Malka Simchi in her store, 'Argaman Fashions,' June 8, 2016.

Ashdod storekeepers who close on Shabbat will ask the Be’er Sheva District Court on Thursday to order Ashdod officials to enforce city bylaws forbidding Shabbat commerce.

According to the petitioners, the opening of stores and commercial centers on Shabbat constitutes unfair competition that lowers their revenues. The petition is being managed and funded by a group called the Coalition for Saturday Equality, which says it hopes to eventually take legal action in any city where commercial centers operate on Shabbat in violation of local bylaws and national labor laws.

Roei Lachmanovich, the coalition’s director, says this is not a strictly religious battle.

“There are plenty of people who aren’t religious who say, ‘I want to rest on Shabbat, I don’t want to work,’” he said. “I’m not saying that Shabbat has no significance as a symbol, etc., of course. But that’s a debate on an ideological level. The core issue is the practical disregard for the law, the undermining of the labor market, and the harm to small businesses. I am not at all neglecting the importance of Shabbat, but there’s a process here of undermining the law, of [people] saying that the Work and Rest Law is just air.”

According to the petitioners, there are some 230 businesses in Ashdod opening on Shabbat, and the municipality does not enforce closure orders against them, doesn’t cancel their business licenses, and issues fines that are too low to deter them from operating on that day.

The coalition worked to get businesses to sign on to the court petition, though according to Lachmanovich, many owners came of their own accord. One of the businesses is Argaman Fashions, an eight-year-old clothing store owned by Malka and Eitan Simchi, who describe themselves as traditional and don’t open their store on Shabbat. “It affects businesses that don’t open on Shabbat, it does damage,” they said. “When there are stores open on Shabbat, people go shopping [then] and fewer shop on weekdays.”

They added that over the years, as more businesses opened on Shabbat, they began to feel the pinch. “Our business is barely surviving,” they said, adding it was the first time they were asking for the bylaw to be enforced, since until now they didn’t think they could change anything.

Last month Ashdod Magistrate’s Court Judge Yehuda Lieblin refused the municipality’s request to order five groceries and delicatessens in the city to close on Shabbat, saying he believed those five stores had been targeted because they are all owned by immigrants from the former Soviet Union and advertise that they sell nonkosher food. The city claimed that this was not so; they simply had decided to focus on businesses with premises larger than 120 square meters located in religious areas.

But Lieblin wondered why these stores had been chosen, rather than shops in the Star Center complex that is also located in a residential area. The judge also noted that the Ashdod municipality had never submitted a document defining the new enforcement policy. He also rebuffed claims that the five stores were located in religious areas, noting that he’d visited the stores themselves and found that in three of the cases the claim was simply not true. He ordered the municipality to pay each business 20,000 shekels ($5,200) in court costs.

In his ruling, Lieblin said that the municipal bylaw, passed in 1976, should be amended to reflect current realities and allow for the needs of all the population groups living in the city. While during the 1970s there were around 40,000 people living in Ashdod, in 2012 the city’s population was 215,000 people, 9.2 percent of whom were not Jewish. The bylaw does not make any exceptions for these people.