In a landmark ruling on a deeply contentious issue, the High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that grocery stores can remain open on Shabbat in Tel Aviv.
The decision follows a decade-long struggle against the practice between small business owners and the municipal authority.
Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lawmakers reacted with fury to the ruling, vowing to introduce legislation that will override it and even give the Knesset the ability to override High Court rulings more broadly, as has also been proposed of late by the Bayit Yehudi party.
In the face of these threats, however, Yisrael Beytenu said it opposed efforts to deprive Tel Aviv and other cities of the right to determine such matters for themselves.
The case involves a petition by small business owners against a Tel Aviv municipal bylaw passed in 2014, which only went into effect earlier this year, allowing 165 grocery stores to open on Shabbat around the city.
Some small grocery store owners object to the opening of stores by large grocery chains on Shabbat, saying that it forces them to open on their day of rest in order to compete for customers who would not be available during the week.
After successive interior ministers failed to approve the bylaw, the High Court in April this year ruled that the government must allow it to come into effect.
Interior Minister and Shas chairman Arye Deri requested a second court hearing in front of an expanded panel of justices to present the state’s position, which led to Thursday’s decision.
In the ruling, outgoing Supreme Court President Miriam Naor was critical of Deri’s position, saying it did not grant sufficient autonomy to the Tel Aviv Municipality, which she said is the basis for local government.
Naor pointed out that the law specifically grants municipal authorities the right to legislate bylaws determining if shops can be open in their jurisdictions.
She also rejected the interpretation of the Hours of Work and Rest Law advanced by the petitioners that it constitutes a blanket ban on opening businesses on Shabbat.
The law states explicitly that employing a citizen to work on his day of rest is prohibited and that a business owner should not work in his business on his day of rest, but Naor argued that these stipulations do not mean that businesses cannot be opened.
She acknowledged that opening businesses on Shabbat does do a certain amount of damage to the rights of tradespersons and business owners who would prefer not to open on Shabbat but might be forced to for reasons of business competition if others do.
But she said that the rights regarding freedom of occupation and freedom of conscience must also be taken into consideration, and a balance found between these two sets of conflicting rights.
“The balance does not favor one worldview over the other, does not detract from the status and importance of the Sabbath as a national asset of the Jewish people and as one of the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” Naor wrote.
“[But] while protecting the special character of Shabbat, every individual must be allowed to formulate his Shabbat in accordance with his own path and his beliefs, and fill it with content that is appropriate for himself.”
In response to the ruling, Deri said it was “very sad to reveal that in Israel, desecration of the holy Sabbath, which Jews throughout the generations have given up their lives to observe, has become a flag and symbol.”
He claimed that he has already come to an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rapidly advance two government bills which would grant the interior minister the requisite authority “to protect the public character of the Jewish Sabbath.”
A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment on this claim.
United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman labeled the ruling “anti-religious” and “a crass effort to harm the Jewish character of the country,” and said that there was “unanimity” among haredi and National Religious MKs to halt such rulings by the High Court through legislation.
“We will fight to change this injustice through legislation,” vowed Litzman.
Meanwhile, MK Moshe Gafni said that the High Court’s justices were “routinely injuring the holy Torah and Jewish tradition,” and that UTJ would be advancing an amendment to the law to circumvent the ruling.
A bill proposed by Gafni which would invalidate Tel Aviv’s bylaw is already on the agenda for the Ministerial Committee for Legislation this Sunday.
However, a series of politicians from the coalition and the opposition welcomed the ruling.
“A fitting decision!” Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman declared on Twitter.
“There is no reason at all that the state should harm the municipal fabric of Tel Aviv and coerce the residents of the city and the majority of citizens in Israel to follow a lifestyle which is not in accordance with their own path and will,” he said.
Kulanu MK Roy Folkman said he could not yet comment on how his party would deal with Gafni’s legislation, but opined that the talk by the haredi lawmakers of bills circumventing High Court decisions was largely bluster.
“High Court-circumvention legislation is mostly talk, it’s not serious,” Folkman told The Jerusalem Post, saying that despite comments to the contrary, such legislation was also not on the table for haredi IDF enlistment.
His party colleague MK Rachel Azaria said the status of Shabbat in the public realm should be defined in legislation, but that this would require courage and consensus from lawmakers across the political spectrum, and would not be obtained through High Court petitions.
Azaria has proposed legislation that would regulate commercial activity on Shabbat while at the same time formally permit the operation of leisure and recreational institutions on Shabbat, as well as some public transport. It is also on the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, but is opposed by the haredi parties.
“The time has come for us to formulate together how Shabbat in Israel should look, and the task falls on us, the legislators, to do this,” Azaria said in response to Thursday’s decision, telling haredi and National Religious MKs opposed to the ruling to stop blaming the High Court and join her in this effort.
Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay issued a terse response, saying, “We respect religion, we do not respect religious coercion.”
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid welcomed the decision for allowing local municipal authorities to take such decisions for themselves.
“In Bnei Brak, things will definitely be closed, in Tel Aviv, they will definitely be open, and no one thinks that they should tell the other how to live. That’s how it should be,” said Lapid.
He added however that a new dialogue over Shabbat was needed, saying he did not wish Shabbat to be a day like every other. Lapid described Shabbat as “a wonderful gift which the Jewish people gave the world, so let us begin to talk (the opposite of shouting) about how we want it to look.”