Wanted: A Secular Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai must help and take care of this public, which has despaired of the struggle to separate religion from the state and law.

A struggle for Tel Aviv's character is being waged these days. The struggle may be taking place locally, but its outcome will impact on all who live in Israel and on the state's future character. It will determine whether Israel will be a state subjected to the diktats of religion and Jewish law, or a liberal state that allows every person freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.

The Supreme Court granted the appeal submitted by Tel Aviv shopkeepers, who claimed the city was discriminating against them in comparison to store chains such as AM:PM and Tiv Ta'am, which operate on Saturdays, despite the by-law banning businesses from opening on Saturday.

The shopkeepers, who do not open their shops on Saturdays, said they were losing customers to the large chains.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court instructed Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality to take a clear stand on the issue of opening businesses on the sabbath and choose either to enforce the existing by-law or change it to enable shops to open legally and legitimately on Saturdays.

The court instructed the city to put an end to the current situation, in which the city refrains from taking effective steps to enforce the law, like having the Local Affairs Court issue an order banning business from opening on Shabbat, for example. On the one hand the city fails to enforce the law, while on the other hand it imposes fines on businesses for violating the law, the court said. One of the justices, Elyakim Rubinstein, called this policy "Israbluff."

This situation leads to two major ills - a breach of the rule of law, because the city isn't enforcing the law seriously; and discrimination among businesses, because large chains like AM:PM and Tiv Ta'am can absorb the fines while the smaller shopkeepers cannot.

The municipality, for its part, finds it convenient to stick to the status quo, which doesn't annoy anyone and yields an income from fines. However, four months ahead of the local election, Mayor Ron Huldai must stop the zig-zagging and double-standard policy, and change the municipal by-law.

The by-law must allow opening businesses of a certain kind, to be determined in keeping with Tel Aviv's secular character and the wishes of most of its residents.

Changing the municipal by-law, which requires the interior minister's approval, is a necessary step to protect the rule of law, preserve Tel Aviv's liberal, secular image and safeguard the secular public's rights.

This public has been forced to take bans and restrictions in the law in the name of religion, although religion is not part of its world view. Huldai must help and take care of this public, which has dispaired of the struggle to separate religion from the state and law, and is aspiring for a liberal future for Israel.