Three High Court justices - its president, Justice Miriam Naor, its next president (in October) Justice Esther Hayut and Justice Daphne Barak-Erez – made a major contribution Wednesday to the quality of life in Israel. They affirmed the Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that allows the opening on Shabbat of some 250 businesses, two thirds of which are groceries and convenience stores and the rest located in commercial centers. Their ruling constitutes a reasonable compromise between secular Tel Aviv residents, for whom shopping for food – but not only for food – on Shabbat has become part of their lives, and merchants who don’t open on Shabbat and want to prevent competition from those who do.
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The High Court not only approved, in essence, the plan promoted by Mayor Ron Huldai, it also criticized the government, which doesn’t know what it wants or how to decide. Interior Minister Arye Dery can claim he was going to announce any day now his intention to strike down the amendment to the municipal bylaw. But the amendment has been on the Netanyahu government’s agenda for two and a half years now, and the government’s eagerness to avoid getting into hot water with anyone has paralyzed it. When the politicians accuse the High Court of Justice of invading the territory of the legislative and executive branches, they should first do what public leaders are supposed to do: decide among alternatives and put those decisions into practice.
The hue and cry raised by the ultra-Orthodox and Habayit Hayehudi MKs notwithstanding, the High Court ruling struck a proper balance not only between the opposing secular and religious poles, but between national and local affairs. The form of government in Israel tends toward over-concentration and dependence of municipalities and regional councils on government ministries, particularly the finance and interior ministries. The desire for centralized planning, budgeting, uniformity and prioritization clashes with the needs of various communities with their differing social, economic, religious and ethnic compositions. The government would do better loosening its hold and letting local leadership, which is more in tune with local needs, influence daily life in their communities.
Like the groceries in Tel Aviv, Israel is a supermarket of ideas and aspirations. The role of government is to make things easier wherever possible; to serve the citizen and not the other way around; to respect the minority without lording it over the majority. The High Court’s support for the municipal bylaw reflects this enlightened approach.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.