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Hebrew media review

Closed shops, closed minds

Protests in Ashdod against stores closing on Shabbat and outside a synagogue where an attorney general was praying highlight the rifts threatening religious-secular pluralism

Demonstrators protest in Ashdod against the closure of businesses in the city on Shabbat, on January 20, 2018. (Flash90)
Demonstrators protest in Ashdod against the closure of businesses in the city on Shabbat, on January 20, 2018. (Flash90)

The melting-pot working-class coastal city of Ashdod is at the center of the Israeli press’s attention Sunday morning, after it became the unlikely focus of protests against the closing of corner stores on Shabbat over the weekend, but it’s really a larger religious-secular divide seen across a wide strata of issues that is in living color in the papers Sunday morning.

“The battle over Ashdod,” reads a headline in Yedioth Ahronoth, reporting on 2,500 residents who rallied against measures to close stores on the Jewish day of rest.

“The city is burning. A series of events, starting with the attempts to legislate the mini-markets law and ending with the war over Shabbat in Ashdod, has led to a clear conclusion: Shabbat needs to be dealt with through an arrangement and not through force,” activist Roee Lahmanovitz writes in a column for the paper.

Haaretz also plays up the protests, putting the figure at 2,000 and highlighting the behind-the-scenes political battle that broke into the open when Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman joined the protest at a shopping center in the city.

“I am done with Avigdor Liberman,” the paper quotes Shas party head Aryeh Deri, who pushed for the closures, telling his associates. “Liberman ran roughshod over Shabbat and it crossed every line. Even [Yair] Lapid’s father, among the great haters of the religious, didn’t dare to do this.”

Just as the body politic is not of one mind, the papers also feature columnists representing different viewpoints on the subject, with both Yedioth and Israel Hayom featuring dueling columns on both sides of the debate. Interestingly, both papers use thumbs up and down to illustrate the sides of the debate, though in Yedioth thumbs up is for keeping the stores open, and in Israel Hayom thumbs up is for closing them down.

In Yedioth, the person representing the pro-closing the stores side is none other than mayor Yehiel Lasri, who is under fire for not stopping the closures and who writes that the city has managed to balance its various communities mostly successfully until now, when outside actors decided to rile things up.

“Unfortunately, much of the unrest is being caused and led by the irresponsible words and actions of elected officials and activists, who don’t only not know the issue or understand it, but are trying to exploit it for political gain,” he writes.

Despite standing on the other side of the chasm, resident Guy Sa’ar also writes in Israel Hayom about the Goldilocks zone the city was able to maintain and also blames politicians, though not outsiders.

“We ask politicians: Don’t lead the rifts, work for the good of the public. From the mayor we ask: Stop being intimidated by a group that places restrictive conditions on your office. Either start to lead or go home.”

Unlike the other papers, Israel Hayom plays the Ashdod protests lower down than another demonstration Saturday night which was even more controversial, as protesters rallied outside a synagogue where Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit tried to pray as Shabbat ended on Saturday night.

The pro-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paper seizes the incident and squeezes it for all it’s worth.

Worshipers respond to demonstrators outside a synagogue in Petah Tikvah where Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was praying, January 20, 2017 (Hadashot News screenshot; footage: Ariel Shanbel / Makor Rishon)

“Don’t the protesters understand they have scored an own-goal,” Amnon Lord writes in the tabloid, marveling at the demonstrators’ stupidity in crossing yet another red line. “What happened last night was simply a suicide bombing with a suicide vest in an outhouse. Everything went flying everywhere. And it stinks. And sticks.”

The incident also does not escape the attention of Yedioth Ahronoth, where columnist Ben-Dror Yemini also writes that the protest was only hurting itself, though he comes from the direction of someone who wishes the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations had a place for someone moderate like himself.

“How can someone religious or traditional feel when a group of protesters go to disturb the synagogue where the attorney general is praying, just as he is trying to say kaddish for his mother? And how can someone like me, who goes to protest after protest, feel when he finds that many of the protesters, perhaps most of them, belong to the [Communist] Hadash movement? And how can someone from the Zionist left, the center and even from the right feel when a giant sign at the protests has the words BDS,” he asks.

Haaretz also covers the synagogue protest, but only a few grafs buried deep inside the paper. Instead it tackles the religious-secular divide from both a lead editorial, which looks at the “darkness” represented by religious Zionist opposition to a female flight squadron commander, and the visit by Pence, whom columnist Chemi Shalev notes is driven by an “unholy alliance” between Jewish orthodoxy and Christian evangelical messianism.

“Unlike Pence, Trump is only a temporary member in the legions of Israel’s admirers. If and when Jerusalem dares challenge or insult him, it could easily find itself consigned by presidential tweets to the list of ‘shithole countries.’ Pence, on the other hand, is a true believer, the real deal, a messianic Evangelical whose faith compels him to unequivocally support Israel and its most maximalist demands, up to and including, if the need ever arises, full annexation of the Jews’ biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria,” he writes. “Even without the benefit of listening devices, one can rest assured that when Netanyahu and his cohorts contemplate the theoretical impeachment of Trump, they do not break out in cries of desperation nor do they appeal to the almighty to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring.”

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