The city of Ashdod on Saturday began handing out fines to businesses open on the Sabbath at the Big Fashion open mall, for the first time since stepping up its enforcement of Shabbat laws in January.
In past weeks city inspectors had only issued warnings to businesses that are open on Saturdays.
Business owners said they were fined NIS 320 ($90) for opening on the Jewish day of rest.
Mayor Yehiel Lasri, who is responsible for the past month’s stepped up enforcement, had written on his Facebook page on Friday that he believed a solution to the conflict was taking shape, and that it would take into account Ashdod’s different populations. He did not go into details.
An activist group protesting against the Shabbat closures said in response that “another red line was crossed today,” and warned that Lasri was upending the status quo.
Eitan Bar Zeev, CEO of Big Shopping Centers, said the company would cover any and all fines and handle any legal matters with the municipality.
“We are dumbfounded for the umpteenth time by the municipality’s conduct,” Bar Zeev said. “They come out with statements and conciliatory declarations, while at the same time raising the bar for this intolerable religious coercion.”
Shabbat enforcement has been met with weekly protests by thousands of city residents.
The Knesset in January passed a law granting the interior minister the power to override city bylaws allowing mini-markets to open on the Jewish day of rest. Coinciding with the law’s passage, Ashdod municipality stepped up its enforcement of its own bylaw preventing businesses from opening on Shabbat.
Though the passage of the Knesset law may have given a tailwind to the mayor’s decision, the two are not directly related: in Ashdod’s case, the city simply decided to enforce its own long-dormant rules.
Critics of the Knesset legislation decried the religious decree, while proponents of the law said it was necessary to maintain the longstanding status quo in Israel regarding businesses operating on Shabbat.
Ashdod, which has a large number of residents from the former Soviet Union, has seen an increase in the city’s ultra-Orthodox population in recent years, leading to political tensions between the two groups over issues pertaining to religious observance.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has himself visited the open shopping mall in the city. His Yisrael Beytenu party, whose supporters include a large number of secular Israelis from the former Soviet Union, opposed the mini-market law, despite being in the coalition.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has also attended a Saturday demonstration. Both he and Liberman linked the changes in Ashdod to the government’s passage of the so-called mini-markets law.
“Those who say the mini-markets law won’t change anything are wrong and misleading. This [law] will create an even bigger divide in the nation,” Liberman said. “Just as I respect those who go to synagogue on Shabbat, I expect them to respect those who go to buy coffee.”