After the High Court of Justice criticized it for foot-dragging on the issue, the government is expected to vote today to give Interior Minister Arye Dery the authority to decide whether businesses can open on Saturdays. Tomorrow, the decision will be brought before the Knesset. It means Dery will have to decide whether to approve, fully or partially, the Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that permits 164 food stores and kiosks to remain open there on rest days.
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In the cabinet meeting that debated the subject three weeks ago, the ministers from Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi expressed their opposition to opening businesses on Shabbat. In a letter written by the heads of the ultra-Orthodox factions – including Dery – to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they made clear that we cannot nor do we intend to be partners in damaging and crushing the honor of Shabbat, as the Tel Aviv municipal bylaw does. Thus, we demand that the government make an unequivocal decision not to approve this bylaw, and prevent damage to the status quo of the law in Israel that prohibits commercial activity on Shabbat.
Dery argues that a permit to open businesses on a Saturday could force low-paid employees to work on their rest day. But its not the workers rest that is important to him, so much as the concern that Israel will be taking another step toward separating religion and state. His extreme position is a continuation of the one we unhappily recall from the previous interior minister, Gideon Saar, who at the end of his term in office became a believer and tried to impose his new values on the residents of Tel Aviv.
Indeed, it was Saars term as interior minister that brought about the municipal bylaw in question, which itself is an odd compromise. In the framework of this compromise, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai proposed that only about 160 businesses – which constitute about 60 percent of the businesses open at present – would be able to stay open on Shabbat. He proposed this despite the fact that a majority of Tel Avivians want all of the shops to open on Saturday, not fewer than before. These shops are part of the urban culture that allows people to shop at a time of their choosing – especially people who work during the week, whose only free time for shopping is on Saturday.
The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox factions dont care about the interests of Tel Avivs secular residents. They are concerned that if the law passes, it will affect other cities and that Israel will become a more secular state. If the position of these ministers is accepted, Israel will be taking another step toward becoming a country ruled by clergymen – contrary to the will of the majority of its people, who want a more modern and developed state. The latter want a country that takes religious customs into account, but works according to the values of the free majority, as is the case in all developed countries. It is to be hoped that Dery understands this and keeps the situation in Tel Aviv as is.