During my undergraduate studies, I rented a small apartment in the center of Jerusalem – two blocks from Ben Yehuda promenade, on the bustling King George Street. It was the best location for a young secular student. It wasn’t the rigid and conservative environment I was warned about, but a close community of students who brought an interest in arts, culture, and innovation to a traditional city. From fancy wine bars to hole-in-the-wall hipster spots or fish and chips joints, you could find everything you wanted within a half-mile radius without suffering from the estrangement that accompanies the life in a big city. Except on Saturdays.
It’s difficult to explain to a foreigner the experience of Saturdays in Jerusalem, when even the busiest street empties completely and the city feels transformed. No buses, not too many cars, perhaps a few pedestrians taking a walk on a sunny day. As a student who lived in a basic apartment with no cable TV or a car, Saturdays were a challenge. Finally you have some time to relax from the stressful week, but what can you do? It might sound trivial, but finding out that I had forgotten to buy milk on my Friday grocery run was my worst nightmare because it meant I couldn’t have coffee until Sunday morning. If you come from a religious household, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you’re a non-observant student who needs to write a paper, it can definitely drive you crazy.
It took some time to find the few places that opened on Saturdays. At the beginning, I couldn’t understand why they seemed intentionally hidden, but after witnessing a group of ultra-Orthodox protesting against my favorite cafe on a Saturday evening, I realized that every business that openly caters to the secular community on a Shabbat is immediately under attack. The location of the business wasn’t the issue; it was in a neighborhood that houses students, tourists, and more businesses. The religious inhabitants nearby are mostly scholars and liberals who never minded the presence of a few cafes operating on a Saturday. The group of protesters walked from their neighborhoods specifically to strongarm the owners into ceasing operations on Saturdays. The protests were not about a personal grievance, but about power and control and sustaining the status-quo.
Moving to Tel Aviv was inevitable. I loved living in Jerusalem, but soon after graduation it was obvious that this city could not accommodate my lifestyle. This realization dawned on me when I went to visit a friend in Tel Aviv on a Friday – until then I had been the biggest advocate to stay and fight for a more inclusive Jerusalem. He was the first one of my friends to move to Tel Aviv. He was also the only secular guy in the group who was born and raised in Jerusalem, so he was eager to make the move. As we were walking around on the streets near the beach, I noticed the boulevards were filled with people even though Shabbat was about to enter. In Jerusalem, the streets were empty by that time. The thought of seeing people outside, walking on the promenade, riding their bicycles, or sipping coffee on a Friday evening excited me. It felt lively and young and I knew that I wanted to take part in it.
And I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. From a class of 50 students, less than a handful stayed in Jerusalem; even the ones who work in Jerusalem preferred commuting than establishing a life in the city. Tel Aviv might not have fostered the intimate community we experienced in the college town environment, but it provided us the liberty to go out and de-stress from the week’s burdens at a nearby bar on a Friday night. It was secular heaven, a chance to stop fighting and just live the life I want, without needing to explain why or fearing confrontation.
I understand the ultra-Orthodox point of view in regards to Jerusalem, where they are fighting for the character of a city they feel is theirs. Whether we like it or not, most secular Israelis don’t feel the same way towards the city. It’s more of a symbol than a place where you wish to raise a family. But Tel Aviv is a different case. It is the magnet for every secular Israeli between the ages of 20 and 40. Some manage to stay longer and some move to the suburbs, but Tel Aviv is the secular epicenter. There’s a reason for this phenomenon, and mini-marts that are open on a Saturday are a part of it.
The debate over Tel Aviv’s mini-marts has been going on for years. Since the Authorization Law was passed in 1990, each municipality has the discretion to decide when and where businesses under its authority can open during Shabbat hours. The law was promoted by the religious and right-wing parties, who feared that the status of the day was in jeopardy after a few verdicts allowed cinemas to remain open on Saturdays. They wanted to circumscribe the trend as much as possible. The ultra-Orthodox parties objected to the bill since it did not categorically close all businesses during the weekend. The left feared that by delegating the decision to the local council, secular rights would again be squashed under the local procedural process that is influenced by the political power of religious parties.
Tel Aviv at first did not officially change its bylaws,instead choosing not to enforce them. Local inspectors have been writing fines to the same mini-mart owners for decades for opening on Saturdays, yet the municipality did not appeal to the court to ask for those business to shut down. In 2007, a few mini-mart owners sued Tel Aviv’s administration, claiming that the situation gives an unfair advantage to franchises who can absorb the fines and still make a profit. In 2013, the judges ruled that if Tel Aviv wants to open mini-marts on Shabbat, the bylaws must be changed accordingly, and if not, they must be enforced.
Tel Aviv’s government had no choice: as home to a predominantly secular population, the city decided to change its regulations and legally allow the mini-marts’ operation, but that led to a another problem.The law asserts that the minister of interior affairs must not object within 60 days. But Gideon Sa’ar did just that, rejecting Tel Aviv’s first attempt to create a new bylaw, claiming that it would be a reward for the very same businesses that had been overtly violating the previous legislation. When Tel Aviv petitioned for another relaxed bylaw, elections were on the horizon and Sa’ar postponed the decision for the new government. After many months of cabinet ministers (first Silvan Shalom, then Aryeh Deri) postponing the decision, in April 2017 the High Court called to register Tel-Aviv’s bylaw and allow 164 mini-marts to operate on Saturdays.
The ultra-Orthodox parties could have let this one go. They could have accepted that Tel Avivians wish to live a secular lifestyle, away from religious centers and holy sites. But Yaakov Litzman’s resignation from his position as minister of health in November as a protest over train infrastructure work on a Saturday exacerbated the situation. The bigger picture is that in a government with 13 ultra-Orthodox members, both these infringements of the Shabbat’s character took place in proximity. Shas and Yehadut HaTorah couldn’t stay complacent and keep their stature in the eyes of their respective electorates. Both parties can take down the government, and they know it.
Litzman’s resignation in reaction to construction on Shabbat moved Deri into the spotlight – how far is he willing to go? Does his seat mean more to him than the status of the holy day, one of the Ten Commandments? Deri had to prove himself, so he initiated the mini-mart bill, asserting that all local matters that concern operating businesses on Saturdays must be approved by the minister of interior affairs himself, and depend on his discretion whether they are essential. This bill, which passed by a narrow majority last week, won’t have any effect on Tel Aviv’s approved by-law, but it will influence other cities that attempt to follow suit, such as Ramat HaSharon and Haifa. These cities also house a predominantly secular population, and the latter is home to many non-Jewish citizens. Litzman declared that if this bill passes, along with a bill that reverts Tel Aviv’s bylaw and another bill concerning labor on Shabbat, he will resume his position.
The ultra-Orthodox parties needed a win, and for the sake of political stability the government had to succumb. The question is to what limit can the ultra-Orthodox parties pressure the government and Israel’s citizens. The recent data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics finds that the ultra-Orthodox population is 11 percent of Israel’s population, yet their political power is tenfold. They enjoy a disproportionate control that surpasses their demographic and economic contribution.
I have no personal issue with the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. They should be allowed to maintain their lifestyle as long as they contribute the minimal civic duties, such as mandatory military service and paying taxes. But we’re not there. Furthermore, they are voraciously infringing on my rights to live my life as I choose, even though I do fulfill my duties.
I can’t wholeheartedly blame the ultra-Orthodox parties for using the political tools they are given, but I can blame us – the secular, liberal religious, and traditional Jews who allowed things to reach this point and continue voting for parties that don’t promote our rights. The only party that openly objected to the mini-mart bill was Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. Both Kulanu and Likud, secular parties themselves, voted for the bill in order to appease the ultra-Orthodox and sustain the government. Only one Member of Knesset from Likud, Sharren Haskel, stayed true to the party’s liberal agenda and refused to pass the bill.
Israel’s secular community has continued to leave Jerusalem for Tel Aviv. Most of us understand that living in Jerusalem means putting yourself in a constant case of struggle, and even if you work in the government buildings or the Knesset, life is just easier when you commute. In a way, we gave up on this ancestral city and Jerusalem was left for the ultra-Orthodox and religious communities. So please, leave my mini-mart alone; let us be. We, the secular majority, also have a right to live our lives as we please in this land of Jews, even if it means buying milk at the store or taking the bus to visit family on a Saturday. Perhaps it’s time we start fighting for it and stop allowing our lives to be used as a political bargaining chip, even if at the end of the day the issue is only a few mini-marts.