ASHDOD — The bus driver was in a huff as he ducked off the highway toward a shopping center on the outskirts of this coastal southern city.
“In the end, it’s a democracy and the majority rules,” a gray-haired male passenger, seated several rows back to the right of the driver, said angrily.
Forms of governments are liable to change, retorted the bare-headed, but evidently traditionally minded driver, digressing to muse whether the former Soviet Union was truly distinct from modern Russia. “But religion stays the same,” he maintained, to the vigorous cheerleading of a middle-aged woman seated in the front row.
The bus pulled up in front of the Big Fashion open mall. Several ultra-Orthodox teenage boys clambered down the stairs, skipping through the parking lot toward the shopping center that is at the heart of the conversation between the passengers and the driver — the new epicenter of a roiling national argument over the Jewish day of rest.
The controversy erupted three weeks ago, when the city’s mayor, Yehiel Lasri, began sending inspectors to enforce its Shabbat bylaws at the Big Fashion center and the Star Center mall, imposing fines on nearly all of the businesses there for the first time.
Activists infuriated by the bylaws — penned in 1976, but only selectively enforced on businesses since — called protests against the change, the largest of which swelled to over 2,000 outside the municipality building on Saturday night.
“It’s absurd,” said G., 29, an employee in an electronics store who asked to remain anonymous, as he had been instructed not to discuss the matter with media. Noting that Lasri was up for reelection, and Israel could soon see a national election if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slapped with criminal charges, he remarked, “It’s politics, plain and simple.”
A mall, a coffee, a coalition fight
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party forcefully rejects state-sanctioned religious meddling in the public sphere, sat for a cup of coffee at the Ashdod shopping center on Saturday in an act of protest, angering the ultra-Orthodox political parties.
Meanwhile, the opposition Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid attended the Saturday night demonstration. Both he and Liberman linked the changes in Ashdod to the government’s passage of the so-called mini-markets law, geared toward shuttering businesses on Shabbat.
“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.”
Though the passage of the Knesset law may have given a tailwind to the mayor’s decision, the two are not directly related: The mini-markets law allows the Interior Ministry to bypass local city bylaws on Shabbat closures; in Ashdod’s case, the city has decided to enforce its own long-dormant rules.
Interior Minister Deri earlier this month said he has no intention of enforcing the mini-markets law, days after sending the coalition into a dizzying legislative frenzy to pass it.
By Sunday, Deri and Liberman were trading recriminations over the stepped-up enforcement in Ashdod and the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s defiant display, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene.
The political tiff came a week after United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni was recorded saying that the state was planning to train hundreds of non-Jewish inspectors to shutter the stores. The warnings and fines in Ashdod on Saturday, ironically, appeared to have been issued by Jewish city inspectors.
Setting aside the larger national political battle, many residents see the city’s bid to shutter stores on Shabbat as an attempt by its religious mayor to woo ultra-Orthodox voters ahead of the October 2018 municipal elections.
According to Guy Saar, one of the organizers of Saturday’s protests, the issue is a local political matter, with the mayor pressured to act after receiving a letter from local ultra-Orthodox rabbis lambasting the non-enforcement.
“The mayor is apparently subject to pressure and caved to them,” assessed Saar, 29, who runs the Facebook group “Giving Ashdod back to Ashdod residents,” before carefully underlining, “We’re in an election year.”
The Facebook group, which has swelled to 4,300 members, 2,800 of whom were added in the past 30 days, does not list Shabbat as one of its issues. Rather, it sets out grievances on education, housing, the use of sports arenas, and so on. Though thrust into the national limelight over the Jewish day of rest, the goal of the protesters is not strictly centered on the stores, said Saar. But it’s a “painful” issue, he added.
According to Saar, both Liberman and Lapid asked to address the Saturday night rally and were turned down by organizers.
‘This isn’t a religious war’
In addition to the fines it levied against the businesses, the city warned business owners they could face indictments if they don’t close up shop. One warning notice seen by The Times of Israel was issued on Saturday by an inspector with a Jewish name (the municipality has posted ads on Sunday seeking non-Jewish inspectors, sparking an outcry).
As in nearby Tel Aviv, the businesses are likely to absorb the cost — NIS 600 (some $176) per week according to the local bylaws — until the High Court of Justice rules on the issue.
In the meantime, one mall employee said, the shopping center has committed to paying the fines and covering the legal fees.
“The mayor… claims this is a flagrant violation of the status quo and the 1976 bylaws, but the honorable mayor and his friends likely forgot that this law has other clauses that aren’t enforced,” said Saar, referring to other archaic clauses stipulating that all stores must either close every day by 7:30 p.m. or close their doors every Tuesday afternoon.
“Either you enforce it, or you don’t enforce it.”
She also recalled wanting to work on Saturdays as a student, but being rebuffed as the owners feared employing Jews on Saturday would result in fines.
“It’s discrimination. There is something deeply discriminatory here,” she said.
The recent protests were being spearheaded by her generation of Russian speakers in the city, dubbed by Scharf-Greenblatt as “generation one and a half” — born in the former Soviet Union and raised in Israel.
Her friend, Alissa Shukon, said she had not encountered tension between the city’s different communities.
But “if there is religious coercion here, there will be a real war,” she added.
Despite its sizable ultra-Orthodox and secular communities, Ashdod has largely been spared some of the acrimony of other mixed cities, from the modesty battles of Beit Shemesh to the pig-foot synagogue vandalism of the southern city of Arad.
“There is no war between the Ashdod populations,” said Saar, the protest organizer. “It simply doesn’t exist.” He said he had received some support from religious residents for his efforts and even proposed anchoring in the bylaws that strictly Haredi neighborhoods in the city remain off-limit to cars on Shabbat.
“Right now, they’re being blocked illegally. We’re willing to make it legal. We have no problem. We accept them, it’s their right — in areas that are strictly Haredi of course,” he said.
But stores in other areas must be permitted to decide whether to remain open, he stressed.
‘The status quo has been blatantly violated’
On Sunday afternoon, the shopping center was mostly empty. Teenagers milled about, women pushed baby carriages, and pensioners sat down for lunch or ice cream, forming a mosaic of secular and religious Jewish Israelis. “Friday, I’m so happy to see you,” read the neon yellow sweatshirt of a teenage girl. In a bookstore, a Russian-language translation of Lapid’s book on his late father, “Memories after My Death,” is prominently displayed.
It is a facade that belies the mall’s new place in the public debate on the so-called status quo, a fragile combination of national legislation and municipal bylaws, shaped over several decades, that is meant to strike a balance between the needs of Israel’s religious and secular communities.
The upholding of the so-called “status quo” has become something of a Rorschach test: for the religious, it pertains to the original restrictions on Shabbat commerce since the establishment of the state, as anchored in various cities’ bylaws; for the secular, it is the longtime non-enforcement of those laws.
That dichotomy was on display in a column by the mayor in Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday, entitled “We must bring back the status quo.”
“It must be bravely said: in the past several years, this balance and the status quo have been blatantly violated, and we must fix this so that relations between the religious and secular remain positive,” wrote Lasri, referring to commercial activity on Saturdays.
The mayor also accused politicians of capitalizing on local anger to drum up support for their parties.
He slammed the “irresponsible statements and actions” by public officials and activists who “not only don’t know or understand the issue, but also use the situation to further their political needs.”
Lasri and his office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
In a cafe at the center, an Orthodox man eating pizza with his wife pointed to his own white kippah when asked what he thought of the controversy, though he said he refrained from “passing judgement.”
“The mayor wants the Haredim to support him… and he’ll give them whatever they want,” said the Ashdod resident, who asked not to be identified. “It’s obvious, we aren’t stupid.”