Fight for Ashdod

The Minimarkets Law changes the status quo and gives enormous power to minority groups- who happen to hold more power in the Knesset

A mini-market in Tel Aviv, Israel. Earlier this month Israel passed a bill that bans most stores from operating on Shabbat.
David Bachar

Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasry proved this past Shabbat to the residents of his city that his declarations are meaningless. “In the near future I’ll be presenting a broader picture of this complex situation, with the possible solutions,” he boasted on his Facebook page last week, adding that he had “a deep belief that Ashdod will be an example of the ability to overcome wide gaps in lifestyle among the city’s various population groups.”

None of this stopped him from sending municipal inspectors on Saturday to fine businesses that were open in shopping centers. The management of the Big compound described this hypocritical, fearful policy as “fine words on one hand and fines on the other.”

The disproportional power that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grants the ultra-Orthodox got support on Saturday from Lasry and the Ashdod municipality. This is particularly outrageous given that the religious community in Ashdod is only 20 percent of the population. But in Ashdod, as in the Knesset, their political clout exceeds their numbers.

The Minimarkets Law that the Knesset recently passed changes the status quo and gives enormous power to the interior minister at the expense of mayors and local council heads. But enforcement of the Supermarkets Law is not the explanation for what’s happening in Ashdod; the problem is the spirit of the law hovering over the city, or, more precisely, over City Hall.

In recent years the Ashdod municipality tried to allow the opening of stores in shopping centers on Shabbat using selective enforcement; the city turned a blind eye toward businesses that opened in malls and shopping centers, but did not allow stores to open in the downtown area. After a court ruled that the municipality cannot enforce the law selectively, the city decided to impose Shabbat closure on businesses in the shopping centers as well, instead of allowing stores to open both downtown and in the shopping centers, for the benefit of the large majority of city residents.

Lasry’s decision to shut down all the businesses and grocery stores on Shabbat intensifies the blow to the lifestyle of the secular and traditional majority in the city, which has also had to cope with street blockages on Shabbat by Haredim, to which the city is turning a blind eye. Lasry’s capitulation to religious coercion is especially worrisome as Ashdod is Israel’s sixth-largest city and it has a clear secular majority. If Ashdod surrenders to religious coercion, other secular cities may fall as well.

It seems as if many Israelis understand this and have decided to join the Ashdod demonstrations even though they don’t live there, which is a good sign. The way the winds are blowing lately, only a broad civil protest will halt the ongoing surrender to the Haredim. Ashdod must not fall into their hands.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.