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Jerusalem’s First Station to remain open on Shabbat

Planning committee overturns motion by ultra-Orthodox council members who sought to shutter promenade on Saturdays

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Jerusalemites at The First Station, which mixes kosher and non-kosher, Shabbat and non-Shabbat activities (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Jerusalemites at The First Station, which mixes kosher and non-kosher, Shabbat and non-Shabbat activities (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Jerusalem’s First Station promenade will remain open for business on Saturdays, the District Planning and Building Committee ruled on Thursday, overturning a non-binding motion by ultra-Orthodox city council members that sought to shutter the commerce hub on the Jewish day of rest.

Earlier this month, the Jerusalem municipal council voted 15-10 in favor of an appeal brought by ultra-Orthodox council members protesting the site being open for business on Shabbat.

The appeal called for revoking 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 Sabbath.

But the final decision rested with the Finance Ministry’s District Planning and Building Committee, which rejected the earlier vote.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat welcomed the decision.

“The status quo in the city is that there are restaurants and entertainment centers open on Shabbat, and no commerce in the Jewish parts of the city,” said the mayor. “This is exactly what is happening at the First Station and these are the rules in Jerusalem and always have been.

“The First Station greatly contributes to Jerusalem and offers a response on Shabbat to the various communities in the city — the secular public, the non-Jewish public and tourists,” he continued. “We will continue to govern Jerusalem with the necessary balance so that everyone feels at home.”

Barkat earlier this month said the vote by council members 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.

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

The First Station is one of the only sites open on Friday nights and 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.

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

“It’s important to learn two things from this incident,” said Berkovich in a statement. “Jerusalem comes before politics, and if Jerusalem is not a place for all, it simply won’t be at all.”

The debates come ahead of the annual city elections, 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 is 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 as well, though neither has declared.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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