Haaretz Editorial

Shabbat Protests Make Ashdod a Test Case for Religious Coercion in Israel

If Israel’s sixth-largest city falls to ultra-Orthodox Jews, the country’s other nonreligious cities will follow like dominoes

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Ashdod, January 20, 2018.
\ Ilan Assayag

For the second week in a row, secular residents of Ashdod came out in protest against plans by Mayor Yehiel Lasri to close all businesses in the city on Shabbat, thereby significantly infringing on the lifestyle of the 80 percent of his city’s inhabitants who are secular or traditional. It’s not only about buying groceries. The remaining 20 percent of Ashdod’s residents who are religious or ultra-Orthodox have, as a result of the power they wield in the city council, won preferential treatment when it comes to building schools and homes. This now extends to store closures. Moreover, in Rova Gimel, an area of the city with both secular and ultra-Orthodox residents, Haredim even block streets on Friday nights, preventing secular residents from driving to their homes – and the mayor is silent.

Ashdod’s secular and traditional residents fear, rightly, that Haredim will take over the city, as happened in Tiberias and in Beit Shemesh, and so they have begun to fight. All they want is to enjoy Shabbat in their own way: with a day trip, recreation, theater, movies and also shopping. After all, even residents of the religious city of Bnei Brak chose to spend Shabbat as they please. That is the meaning of freedom of choice in a democratic state. But the Haredim, who were given enormous power in the Netanyahu government, became power-drunk, leading them to conquer more and more domains from the secular community.

Contrary to statements by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the Supermarkets Law recently passed in the Knesset will change the situation and is of far-reaching significance. The law changes the status quo and gives enormous power to the interior minister, at the expense of the mayor. The law is now being used as an all-out call against the Haredim who want to force their lifestyle on the secular majority. It’s strange that the justice minister, who is so fond of the words “freedom” and “liberty,” supports this unacceptable legislation.

For years, Ashkenazi Haredim refrained from interfering in the lives of secular Israelis. But as time went by, and particularly under the current Netanyahu government, they have grown stronger, and now, high on that strength, they have begun to meddle in the lives of secular people, from railway repairs on Shabbat to grocery stores that open on Shabbat. The sad part is that Sephardi Haredim (the Shas party), who were once moderate and believed in the maxim, “live and let live,” have also become extremists. They too are power-drunk. Their leader, Interior Minister Arye Dery, who more than one said secular Jews should be left to deal with Shabbat in their own way, has changed the status quo for the worse. It’s not only Ashdod; the Bilu shopping center near Rehovot is now on the agenda for those very same reasons.

Ashdod is Israel’s sixth largest city, with a population of 250,000. If it falls to the Haredim, the other secular cities will fall after it, one by one. Ashdod is a test-case city: religious coercion must stop there. The Supermarkets Law must be abolished.

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