With Tuesday’s initial approval of the so-called supermarkets bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has increased Orthodox control over Israeli public life. The bill, which is meant to circumvent local governments and bar judicial intervention, gives the interior minister the power to veto the opening of businesses on Shabbat. By capitulating to Interior Minister Arye Dery’s threats, Netanyahu has proven that he views his political survival in the shadow of the police investigations against him as justifying harm to both secular Israelis and Israelis who see no contradiction between a traditional lifestyle and the possibilities of modern life, such as traveling or shopping on Shabbat.
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The bill passed its first Knesset vote after heavy pressure by Netanyahu. It was born of a High Court of Justice ruling upholding a Tel Aviv bylaw allowing 164 groceries and kiosks to open on Shabbat and holidays. The bill lets the interior minister strike down such bylaws.
The bill stipulates that commerce may take place on Shabbat only if it is meant “to supply needs that, in the minister’s view, are essential,” and only “to the minimum extent necessary” to serve this purpose. But since when does a cabinet minister understand a community’s essential needs better than its leaders?
The fact that the law won’t apply retroactively to Tel Aviv is a small comfort. After all, secular and traditional Jews outside Tel Aviv are also entitled to shop on Shabbat. The 58 mayors who stressed in a letter to Netanyahu that the bill constituted “a severe blow to Israelis and a drastic change in the status quo regarding business activity on Shabbat” were right.
It’s no accident that in her ruling some six weeks ago permitting businesses in Tel Aviv to open on Shabbat, then-Supreme Court President Miriam Naor wrote: “Alongside protecting Shabbat’s unique character, we must allow every individual to mold his Shabbat in his own way, according to his own beliefs, and to fill it with content that he deems appropriate.” She also expressed an understanding that Tel Aviv is not like the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak: “It’s not for nothing that the legislator saw fit to assign this balancing job to local governments.”
Taking authority over municipal bylaws from local governments and subordinating it to a ministry controlled by the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is a mistake. This ultra-Orthodox effort to dictate how others behave on Shabbat is unacceptable. The government’s capitulation to this demand out of alien considerations, while ignoring the welfare of a majority of the public, grants a minority excessive power to impose its ways on the majority, and is therefore doubly unacceptable. Such an edict does not belong in Israel’s law books.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.