Jerusalem mayor rejects council vote to close First Station on Shabbat
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Jerusalem mayor rejects council vote to close First Station on Shabbat

Barkat says he’s not bound by passage of motion pushed by ultra-Orthodox to stop cultural compound’s Saturday activities; Finance Ministry decision on the issue set for Thursday

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat seen taking a selfie with Jerusalemites as he tours "First Train Station" in Jerusalem on March 24, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat seen taking a selfie with Jerusalemites as he tours "First Train Station" in Jerusalem on March 24, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat vowed Wednesday night to keep the capital’s First Station promenade open for business on Saturdays, saying that a vote earlier in the day to close the commerce hub on the Jewish day of rest was not binding and could not force his hand.

“There will be no change in the activities of the First Station promenade and it will continue just as it has been today,” Barkat told local Jerusalem news site Kol Ha’Ir.

“As opposed to the impression that certain interest groups are trying to create, the decision cannot be imposed by the city council, which, in this regard, is there only to make recommendations,” he said.

His comments came after the municipal council voted by 15 to 10 in favor of an appeal brought by ultra-Orthodox council members protesting the site being open for business on Saturdays.

The appeal called to revoke permission given to the compound — a former 19th century train station that for the past five years has been home to restaurants and art displays, and offers live entertainment and cultural activities — to keep its doors open on the Jewish day of rest.

The appeal was filed with the council, made up of secular, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox members, two years ago but the final decision rests with another committee within the Finance Ministry, which will vote on May 17 whether to uphold the existing arrangements, according to a statement from the municipality.

“As the person under whose leadership the station was built, Mayor Nir Barkat is certain there will be no change at the station and it will continue to operate according to the status quo in Jerusalem, according to which culture, leisure, and restaurants are permitted [to remain open] on Shabbat while commerce is forbidden,” a statement from Barkat’s office said ahead of the vote.

The issue “will not be determined by the city council, but rather the following day by the district committee in the Finance Ministry and we expect and believe it will uphold the existing arrangement under the status quo,” the mayor’s office said.

Illustrative: Jerusalem’s First Station and follow the renovated railway tracks (Courtesy The First Station)

The revived debate over the cultural compound’s Shabbat activity was also condemned by the Hitorerut party’s Ofer Berkovich, an original backer of the First Station and a candidate for mayor in the upcoming October elections.

“This is a declaration of war on the ability of diverse communities to live together in Jerusalem,” said Berkovich earlier this month. “We will fight for a tolerant and open Jerusalem and to safeguard the First Station.”

The First Station is one of the only sites open on Saturdays in Jerusalem. Israeli law forbids businesses from operating during the Jewish day of rest, with exceptions including places of entertainment, restaurants and basic services such as pharmacies, as well as industries whose closure would hurt Israel’s economy. A vehemently debated issue in numerous Israeli cities, the policy is of particular sensitivity in deeply religious Jerusalem.

In January, the government passed a law to shutter minimarkets countrywide on Shabbat, though after a furious public debate over the passage of the law, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri later conceded it would not be enforced.

The debates come ahead of the annual city elections in October, during which the  hot-button issue of businesses open on Shabbat will likely be a centerpiece of the various mayoral campaigns.

Barkat has announced he will not seek reelection and was setting his sights on joining the Likud party in government in the 2019 elections. Other candidates who have thrown their hat in the mayoral ring include Moshe Lion and Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, while Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin and coalition chairman David Amsalem were said to be mulling running in the 2018 Jerusalem election, though both have yet to officially declare.

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