With political tensions mounting over Public Transport Minister Yisrael Katz’s decision to permit renovation work on Saturday (Shabbat), an inter-ministry government commission is attempting to find a solution to one of the most controversial day-to-day topics in Israeli society: Commerce on Shabbat.
One of Tel Aviv’s main distinguishing attributes among Israeli cities is the fact that many convenience stores remain open on Saturday. For years, the city had about 200-250 stores open on Shabbat, even though the law only allows leisure establishments such as restaurants, coffee shops, cinemas, etc. – but not stores – to continue operating on Shabbat.
Occasionally, the city would hand out fines to stores open on Saturdays until one shop owner took the matter to court. In early 2014, at the direction of the High Court of Justice (HCJ), the city established a new bylaw that formulated new criteria that would allow around 160 stores to remain open in the city on Saturdays. Then-Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar decided to strike the bylaw down, and determined that only convenience stores at gas stations and businesses in dedicated locations (such as the Tel Aviv port area) would be allowed to remain open on Shabbat.
The case was once again taken to court but has been on the backburner for two years. Despite the fact that the state was supposed to give its response on the matter to the court in September, it was granted an extension to the end of January 2017.
In an attempt to find a solution, an inter-ministry government commission was established a number of months ago headed by PMO Director General Eli Groner. It also included the directors general of the Interior, Justice, Economy, and Religion ministries. Since its creation, the commission has come up with three possible compromises.
The first would allow about 160 stores that meet the criteria of the municipal bylaw to stay open on Shabbat. Since about 230 stores currently conduct business on Saturdays in the city, this would mean a massive reduction.
The second option would reduce the number of stores that would be allowed to remain open if the municipal bylaw were to take hold by about 20 percent, and conducting a lottery to determine which would be given that right. This would leave about 130 store open on Saturdays.
The third option would be to close all stores not located in dedicated spaces, or in gas stations, as Sa’ar ordered at the time.
Ultra-Orthodox parties will likely oppose the first two options, since their agreement to them would amount to allowing masses of people to violate Shabbat each week in Tel Aviv. The third option however, is viewed by them as a lesser evil, but they are still likely to oppose it since it would constitute a precedent for government approval of Shabbat violation, however minimal it may be.
The Tel Aviv Municipal Authority is opposed to the third option, and insists that even if it is adopted by the commission it should be reversed, with gas station convenience stores shut and city stores remaining open. It it atill unclear which option the commission will endorse, and whether it will have any effect on the case currently before the court.