The High Court of Justice on Wednesday ruled in favor of Tel Aviv’s battle to expand facilities open to the secular public on Shabbat, saying that the municipality can permit mini-markets to operate on the Jewish day of rest.
The ruling was hailed as a victory by the city and liberal politicians, who said it was an important step against religious coercion. However, ultra-Orthodox officials railed against the ruling and vowed to fight it and bypass the court.
“As I said already four years ago, the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa was free and will remain free,” Ron Huldai, Mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, said according to the Ynet news site.
But Interior Minister Aryeh Deri slammed the ruling as a change to the religious status quo in Israel and “a serious blow to the holy Shabbat and the character of the Jewish people,” the Haaretz newspaper reported.
Deri said that he and other defenders of the Sabbath would meet with the prime minister soon to protest.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism said the ruling represented “the continuation of vulgar legal meddling with the values of religion and religious law.”
Litzman said the move left “no choice but to advance a legal process to circumvent the High Court.” Such a move, he said, would “prevent the continuing erosion of tradition and religion in the country,” Haaretz quoted him as saying.
Israeli law forbids businesses from operating during the Jewish day of rest, with exceptions including places of entertainment, restaurants and basic services such as pharmacies.
Tel Aviv, home to a mostly secular population, has sought to widen the scope of businesses allowed to be open on Shabbat, while ultra-Orthodox political factions have sought to add restrictions and improve enforcement of Shabbat laws.
The issue, which has pitted secular and religious politicians against each other, has been festering since March 2014. At that time, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality drafted a new bylaw after the Supreme Court ordered it to either replace or enforce existing regulations against Shabbat commerce.
The municipality suggested allowing 164 grocery stores and kiosks measuring 500 square meters in size or less to open on Shabbat.
The issue ultimately reached the High Court after three successive interior ministers — Deri from Shas, and Likud’s Silvan Shalom and Gideon Saar — refused to rule on the matter.
On Wednesday, the three justices threw out a government request for an extension of time and ruled that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa bylaw on the issue was proportional.
High Court President Miriam Naor wrote that the ruling applied to a very limited number of the city’s businesses and would allow the unique character of the Shabbat to be preserved.
Justice Esther Hayut wrote that in light of the failure of the ministers to act during the last two and a half years “there‘s no way to avoid seeing this avoidance as a kind of decision to deny, without explanation, the bylaws of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.”
Zehava Galon, leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, welcomed the ruling as an “important ratification of the authority of Tel Aviv’s residents to decide by themselves in a democratic way and of the authority of the municipality to pass bylaws in response.”
She added that reason had triumphed over those wishing to create a theocratic state in Israel, Haaretz reported.
A row over Shabbat openings has also been going on in Jerusalem, which has a large religious and ultra-Orthodox population.
In September, the Jerusalem municipality announced its intention to prosecute mini-markets that continue doing business on Saturdays in the city center, in contravention of an order issued last year.
Mayor Nir Barkat, who is secular, announced his intention to enforce bylaws requiring Shabbat closure of city-center businesses last August — a move that would affect seven supermarkets and kiosks.
But implementation was delayed after Yossi Havilio — a former Jerusalem municipal legal adviser-turned-Barkat critic — demanded a hearing on behalf of four of the businesses.
In January, the municipality announced that it would start enforcing the bylaws from early April. In February, Havilio presented a petition to the Supreme Court against the Shabbat ban.