Hundreds of non-Jewish inspectors being trained to uphold Sabbath store closure

Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni taped telling closed meeting that religious status quo is changing ‘for good of ultra-Orthodox’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Chairman of the Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni, leads a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chairman of the Finance Committee, Moshe Gafni, leads a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on September 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hundreds of non-Jewish inspectors are being trained to enforce the closure of stores on the Jewish Sabbath, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker has been recorded telling a private meeting, Hadashot News reported Monday.

Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, also told his audience that he was satisfied that the so-called status quo on religion was changing for the good of the ultra-Orthodox.

The religious status quo is a fragile combination of national legislation and municipal bylaws, shaped over several decades, and it is supposed to strike a balance between the needs of Israel’s religious and secular communities.

On January 9, a controversial law granting the interior minister the power to close stores on Shabbat passed in the Knesset by a razor-thin majority, after the ruling coalition overcame internal divisions to muster the needed votes.

Illustrative: A Tel Aviv convenience store, July 30, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)

The law grants the interior minister, currently Shas head Aryeh Deri, the power to oversee and reject local ordinances relating to whether businesses may remain open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that runs from Friday evening until Saturday night.

After the law passed Deri had said he would not enforce the law that had caused outrage among secular communities.

But the recording paints a different picture.

In the tape recording, initially broadcast by the Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat, Gafni can be heard telling a conference of the United Hatzalah emergency service that he reached an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have hundreds of inspectors currently charged with detaining illegal migrants retrained to uphold the Sabbath closure of stores.

He asked his audience to ensure that what he was saying did not leave the room, because it could “cause damage, that all of a sudden people are moving on it.”

Gafni went on, “We’re not only preserving the status quo, we’re also making progress on the subject of Sabbath observance.”

He noted, “Today, there is no moshav [cooperative agricultural community] without a synagogue; there are places with ritual baths where no ultra-Orthodox Jew has ever walked.”

“We are present in places where we have our schools, in places we never knew we could get into..In Kadima [in central Israel], in Nahariya [on the northern coast] ..with 400 and 450 pupils who have no connection, and have never had any connection, with the ultra-Orthodox public,” he said.

Israeli minister of Interior Affairs Aryeh Deri visits schools during a visit to the northern Israeli city of Nahariya, December 8, 2016. (Yaacov Cohen/ FLASH90)

In other comments, Gafni described how, as head of the powerful Finance Committee, he was able to cancel planned budget cuts that would have affected the ultra-Orthodox community.

“The prime minister called me on Thursday night. He said to me, ‘Rabbi Gafni, I want you to help us to pass the budget, to agree’..I said to him, ‘Prime Minister, to what do you want me to agree? That cuts are made to our schools, our religious seminaries…?’ Then he says, ‘So what do you suggest?’

“So I said, ‘I suggest you reverse the cuts down to the last shekel, otherwise it [the budget] won’t pass,’ and so it was, and the budget passed unanimously.”

Following all-night marathon negotiations, cabinet ministers on Friday unanimously approved a 2019 state budget of NIS 397.3 billion ($116.1 billion), which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised would ensure the political stability the government needed to survive until the end of its term late next year.

The law on Sabbath closure of stores will not affect the secular bastion of Tel Aviv, which Israel’s High Court recently ruled could pass its own bylaws to govern what stores may remain open on Shabbat. Some coalition lawmakers had hoped to include the southern resort city of Eilat in the exemption, but the proposal was rejected by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.

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