In the pressure cooker of Israeli politics, seemingly minor developments can have far-reaching implications. A rise in the price of cottage cheese sparked nationwide social protests in 2011, and today the supermarket is yet again at the center of controversy, this time in a fight to keep stores open on Shabbat.
The “Shabbat supermarket law” gives the interior minister the power to override municipal bylaws that permit businesses to remain open on Shabbat. It was approved by the Knesset by a vote of 58-57 on January 9th. Aryeh Deri, the interior minister and ultra-Orthodox Shas party chairman claimed that the bill’s passage into law represents the “victory of the silent majority in the State of Israel that wishes to safeguard the country’s Jewish character and to rest on the day of rest.” In fact, the victory is that of a vocal, powerful minority who define Israel’s Jewish character in strict, parochial terms, and who wish to impose their religious views on everyone else. Of late, this minority has made significant strides in enforcing its vision of Israel through legislation, the Shabbat supermarket law being one prominent example.
Ministers such as Deri and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked have claimed that the new law merely reflects a desire to preserve the status quo, and that no real changes will take place. This is not entirely accurate. While in practice, the law may not be enforced by the authorities, it grants the interior minister unprecedented power to control commercial activity on Shabbat. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Knesset, most municipalities have laws on the books forbidding businesses from remaining open on Shabbat, with the exception of some restaurants and places of entertainment. In practice, however, the vast majority of cities fail to enforce these bylaws, and one can find open grocery stores, corner stores, cafes, and restaurants on the Jewish day of rest in nearly every sizable city.
The Shabbat supermarket law seeks to change the status quo by granting the interior minister the power to interfere with municipal bylaws. Businesses located in municipalities that prohibit commerce on Shabbat may petition the High Court of Justice to protest rival businesses that remain open on Shabbat contrary to the law. The court may then order the municipality to enforce its bylaws, or to amend its bylaws to permit commerce on Shabbat. However, should the municipality attempt to amend its bylaws, the interior minister may veto the change, giving the federal government the ultimate authority in municipal matters.
As a response to the supermarket bill, many cities, such as Herzliya, Givatayim, and Rishon LeZion have rushed through amendments to their bylaws permitting businesses to remain open on Shabbat. However, these amendments are subject to approval by the interior minister. If the interior minister refuses to accept the changes, municipalities will have to appeal to the High Court of Justice. To date, Tel Aviv is the only city that has been granted approval to amend its bylaws in order to allow grocery stores to remain open on Shabbat. It remains to be seen if other cities will also be successful in changing their bylaws, or if the proposed amendments will be struck down by the interior minister.
Recent controversy in Ashdod may portend battles elsewhere. The coastal city of Ashdod recently began fining businesses open on Shabbat. Ironically, the municipality employed Jewish workers to issue these fines on Shabbat. Despite weekly protests, including the disruption of a city council meeting, the mayor appears intent on enforcing city bylaws prohibiting the opening of businesses on Shabbat. Ashdod is an overwhelmingly secular city, with the ultra-Orthodox making up only 17 percent of adult residents, yet claiming 37 percent of the seats on the city council. Ashdod is a diverse city with a large number of immigrants, and approximately a quarter of the residents of Ashdod are secular Israelis originally from the former Soviet Union. Their presence in demonstrations against the municipal government was made clear by the large number of protest signs in Russian. While speaking with residents about the ban, it was clear that they felt that their way of life was under attack, and that the ban represented an attempt to transform Ashdod into a religious city.
The Shabbat supermarket law was not the sole reason that Ashdod’s municipal government began fining businesses that operate on Shabbat, however, the timing of the legislation suggests that it may have inspired the municipality to begin enforcing its long-ignored bylaws. In towns such as Ramat Gan, Kfar Saba, Givatayim, and Herzliya, where the vast majority of residents are secular and the ultra-Orthodox population is negligible, it seems probable that shops and restaurants will remain open as usual on Shabbat. Nevertheless, the ultra-Orthodox population is growing a faster rate than any other sector of the population, and as their numbers increase so will their political power. Already, the interests of secular Israelis (the largest demographic in Israel) are continuously being overlooked by the government, where religious parties wield undue influence because of their position in the coalition.
Following a crisis over railroad work on Shabbat and on the heels of a decision to expel thousands of asylum seekers in a misguided attempt to preserve Israel’s demographic integrity as a Jewish state, the Shabbat supermarket law reflects deep-seated anxiety about Israel’s character as both a Jewish and a democratic state. The law suggests that Israel’s Jewish nature, as defined in strictly Orthodox religious terms, has come to supersede its definition as a democracy, at least in the minds of the MKs who voted for it. What is needed is a deep and honest discussion about the place of religion in Israeli society and a search for solutions that will achieve a delicate balance between religious freedom and Jewish tradition, not misguided attempts to impose religious doctrine on those who wish to buy a loaf of bread on a Saturday morning.