In walkback, mall chain says stores can open Tuesday during planned overhaul strike

Big Shopping Centers had faced right-wing boycott threats and political pushback, with one MK vowing to use his immunity to physically prevent ‘bunch of pigs’ from closing stores

The Big shopping center in Yehud on May 4, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
The Big shopping center in Yehud on May 4, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Facing a rebellion from stores and political pressure, a chain of strip malls said Monday it will not force its shops to take part in a planned strike Tuesday to protest a bill limiting court review of governmental decisions.

Big Shopping Centers said that while the facilities themselves will not be staffed if the bill passes its first Knesset reading on Monday evening, stores within the shopping centers that decide to open will be able to do so. It also said it would give a discount on rent to shops that remain closed.

It was an about-face for the chain after numerous stores operating on its premises said they would not abide by the planned strike action and as calls grew for a consumer boycott on the right as well as a 3.2 percent drop in its stock following its strike announcement on Sunday.

It also faced pressure from right-wing politicians. One of them, MK Almog Cohen of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, had said Monday morning he would physically prevent Beersheba’s Big center from closing.

“They’re a pack of pigs,” he told the Ynet news site. “They can’t force such a thing on the public because the CEO is a leftist and [Knesset legislation] doesn’t fit his political agenda.”

Cohen had even appeared to suggest he could get violent if need be, saying repeatedly that he would not hesitate to use his parliamentary immunity as part of his efforts at the location.

File: Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen at the Knesset on November 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The legislation, set to pass the first of three readings at the Knesset Monday evening, would block courts from exercising judicial review over the “reasonableness” of government decisions. It is the first overhaul bill being advanced by the coalition after a three-month pause while it conducted now-defunct negotiations with the opposition on potential consensus for judicial reform.

Big’s announcement of the planned strike on Sunday came as organizers of the national protests against the overhaul plan called for demonstrations Tuesday “such as have never been seen before in Israel,” and dozens of tech firms have told workers they can take the day off to protest.

Big Shopping Centers had said the two dozen malls it operates nationwide would be shuttered Tuesday if the bill cleared its first reading, denouncing the proposal as “another step on the path to dictatorship.”

“Legislation like this would be a fatal blow to business and economic certainty in Israel, and will directly and immediately endanger our existence as a leading company in Israel,” Big said in a statement. “When the country is trembling and torn from within, we cannot sit on the sidelines.”

The firm had also vowed “to intensify our steps” if the legislation further advances.

The announcement was denounced by coalition members, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir calling for a boycott of Big’s malls until it apologizes. Ben Gvir, who heads the Otzma Yehudit party, insisted the Knesset vote would take place “despite all those acting thuggishly.”

Some store owners had slammed Big, lamenting expected losses due to the strike and predicting their businesses would bear the brunt of the boycott.

“They are destroying our livelihood,” an unnamed store owner at the Big center in Beit Shemesh told the Kan public broadcaster. “Anyone who wants to protest should passionately do so — this is a democratic country — but they’ve backed us into a corner and didn’t give us the right to choose.”

Following the boycott calls, numerous tech firms and startups had announced they would start buying supplies for their businesses at Big and not purchase from any company that sues the shopping mall operator over the strike.

“The tech sector has huge purchasing power between companies, employees, and their families, and directing it to bolster BIG is an extremely important goal,” dozens of tech companies said in a statement.

“We call on more businesses to show courage like BIG and for the public to support companies that stand up against the threat to democracy. In addition, we will not buy from companies that sue BIG because of the courage it showed,” the statement read.

It was not clear whether the initiative would go ahead despite Big’s partial reversal on Monday.

Israelis protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Organizers said Tuesday’s demonstration would be “July’s first Day of Resistance” and would include rallies, protest convoys, disruptions throughout the country starting at 7 a.m. and another large-scale protest at Ben Gurion Airport at 4 p.m.

They also announced protests outside the US embassy branch office in Tel Aviv and the President’s Residence in Jerusalem to be held at 6:30 p.m., followed by further rallies later Tuesday evening.

“If the government doesn’t stop — the whole country will stop,” they said.

The protests have been ongoing since January, when Justice Minister Yariv Levin revealed the overhaul plans, and recently ramped up again as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has renewed its legislative push. Opponents say the proposed measures are a threat to Israel’s democratic character and will leave the rights of minorities unprotected, while supporters argue they are needed to curb the powers of an overreaching judiciary.

Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.

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