In Sabbath Store-hour Law, Another Loss for Secular Israelis

The interior minister doesn't want to let Tel Aviv grocers open on Saturdays. But why must secular people have to sacrifice their freedom?

Eyal Toueg

“The Land of Israel without Shabbat will not be built, but will be destroyed, and all your work will be for naught. The Jewish people will never give up Shabbat, which is not just the foundation of Israel’s existence, but the foundation of human existence. Without Shabbat there is no image of God and no human image in the world.”

Quoting these words, written by poet Haim Nahman Bialik in 1933, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar declared on Sunday that he would not approve all sections of the new Tel Aviv bylaw that lets groceries and kiosks remain open on the Sabbath.

A year ago, the Supreme Court accepted an appeal by Tel Aviv store owners who argued that the previous bylaw, which required all businesses to close on Saturdays, was not being enforced. The court agreed that the light fines issued to supermarket chains were no deterrent, while the shop owners risked losing business to the scofflaws.

As a result, the Tel Aviv City Council amended the bylaw to let groceries and kiosks operate on Saturdays. Sa’ar rejected this amendment, but he approved another that allowed businesses to open Saturdays in the commercial areas at Tel Aviv Port, Jaffa Port and the renovated Old Train Station complex.

Sa’ar’s quoting of Bialik was no accident. The interior minister argued that the bylaw also undermined democratic values because “preserving the character of Shabbat is not just a religious issue, but also a cultural, national and social issue.”

The strong influence of religion was discernible in his explanations. “The principle of a weekly day of rest is a fundamental principle in our country … the Jewish people’s gift to humanity,” he said, later adding that “preserving the character of Shabbat and its uniqueness … constitutes a supreme interest to the Israeli public as a whole and the Jewish public in its land in particular.” Sa’ar even used the cliché about “finding the appropriate balance between conflicting rights.”

But his words must be put to the test. If religious citizens aren’t interested in working on the Sabbath, no one is forcing them to. Why must the secular community, which faces all sorts of legal prohibitions and restrictions in the name of religion, be forced to sacrifice its freedom for this sacred “balance”?

Sa’ar’s decision was released the same day the Ministerial Committee for Legislation opposed a bill to let local authorities operate public transportation on Saturdays. The bill, initiated by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), was dropped when the head of the committee, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, decided not to take part in the vote, saying the bill was “too sweeping and disproportionate.”

The two decisions are related. Rather than seeking to establish a liberal state, one that would afford every person freedom of religion or freedom from religion, Israel is gradually turning into a state subordinate to the dictates of Jewish law.