Is ‘predatory theocracy’ actually threatening Tel Aviv?

By Hagai El-Ad

A recent Supreme Court ruling dictated that Tel Aviv must shut down certain business during the Sabbath. The decision was met by an automatic response that framed the decision as a ruling in favor of a ‘predatory theocracy,’ instead of one in support of an ‘enlightened, free, and open’ society. But are these the only two options available?

Recently, the Supreme Court in Israel decided to order the Tel Aviv Municipality to either enforce – or amend – the City’s existing municipal bylaw with regard to the closure of certain businesses on Shabbat. Yes, Tel Aviv actually has such a bylaw, though you may be hard pressed to notice it, given the number of businesses in the city that are open on Shabbat.

Unfortunately, the Court’s decision was met with a rather lukewarm, automatic response. To that, I want to offer an alternative that I hope will serve us not only in the coming new Jewish year, but also beyond.

The automatic response was to frame the court’s decision as a ruling in favor of a “predatory theocracy,” instead of one in support of an “enlightened, free, and open” society. But are these the only two options available?

True, there are issues on which it is really hard to reconcile liberal values and traditional ones. But is the opening of supermarkets on Shabbat in Tel Aviv really such an issue?

Here is a point that may give us a reason to pause and ponder: who brought the case before the Court in the first place? It certainly wasn’t the Orthodox Rabbinate. The people who wanted to force the city to respect its own bylaw were simply small shop owners who were unable to work seven says a week and couldn’t compete with the supermarket chains.

And here’s another news flash: other cities around the globe, including cities that many Tel Avivians envy for how “enlightened” they are, do restrict the opening of businesses on the day of rest. Take Berlin for example – the happening city of the decade. There, in general, shops are closed on Sundays, but for when certain events take place in the city. This means that out of 52 Sundays in the year 2012, shops were closed on 44 of them. Does that make Berlin subject to a “predatory theocracy,” or is it still an “enlightened, free, and open” city?

A Supreme Court decision forcing stores in Tel Aviv to close on the Sabbath is not the 'theocratic' edict many of the city's residents have come to fear. (Activestills)

A Supreme Court decision forcing stores in Tel Aviv to close on the Sabbath is not the ‘theocratic’ edict many of the city’s residents have come to fear. (Activestills)

The court ‘s decision is not a judgment between black and white; rather, it is an opportunity to seriously consider the important social and public aspects of the city’s bylaw. What social norm do we want this bylaw to reflect in Tel Aviv and elsewhere?

Socially, there is no way around the fact that open stores on Shabbat have implications vis-à-vis the rights of workers in these businesses. This, in a country where workers’ rights are already regularly trampled on, with constant efforts to further reduce the protections provided by Israel’s Hours of Work and Rest Law. Will those willing to fearlessly fight – in the name of human rights, no less – for the opening of supermarket chains they otherwise despise also remember the rights of workers?

Further, the public character of Shabbat is a question for all Israelis. There is a diversity of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel – some religious, some not. There are secular people in Tel Aviv who that prefer businesses remain closed on Saturday, and there are Orthodox in Jerusalem that are not opposed to businesses being open on Shabbat in some parts of the city.

Fortunately, not all positions are automatic.

Is it possible to find such a thoughtful, non-automatic, balance? To find an Israeli point of balance that takes into account components of both individual rights and of community identity? A local space, wide and imaginative enough, that will allow more people to find themselves and their identity in the discourse of rights – and will allow the rights discourse to organically find itself here.

Hagai El-Ad is the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.

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  1. I agree fully with Hagai here. As a European I can say that in many cities, Sunday is considered a day of rest, which leads to a prohibition of supermarkets opening on Sundays. In the city where I live, Amsterdam, it was overturned sometime ago, but in basically all other places in the Netherlands, either supermarkets are prohibited from opening on a Sunday, or only on a couple of Sundays in the year, or only part of the day (where my parents live, supermarkets are sometimes open from, lets say, 9:00 to 12:00 in the morning).

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