Tel Aviv convenience stores to remain closed Saturdays

Minister nixes proposal that would allow mini-markets to open without fines; mayor vows to fight decision

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

An AM:PM market in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Yaakov/Wikimedia Commons/File)
An AM:PM market in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Yaakov/Wikimedia Commons/File)

Mini-markets in Tel Aviv will continue to be shuttered on Saturdays in accordance with the existing law, Interior Minister Gideon Saar said Sunday, shooting down a proposed amendment that would allow convenience stores to operate on the Jewish Sabbath without penalties.

However, with that, the interior minister approved the opening of businesses in the vicinity of certain central areas, such as the Tel Aviv and Jaffa ports, and stores adjacent to gas stations, on Saturdays, and removed the legal limitation on the number of hours cafes could remain open.

In a statement, Saar explained that the amendment he rejected — which was drafted and approved by the Tel Aviv city council in March in accordance with a Supreme Court order — was a radical departure from the existing law that could constitute a “slippery slope” for future commercial activity nationwide on Shabbat.

The recommended changes, which would have provided a number of businesses on several major streets in Tel Aviv with five-year certificates to operate legally on hitherto prohibited days is a “significant step down the slippery slope, in whose footsteps other authorities will follow, and at the end of the day the nature of business on Shabbat won’t be essentially different from any other day of the week,” he said.

The amendment would also have granted the mayor of the city the authority to determine which stores could open.

Allowing the stores to open on Saturday “has the potential for future expansion” that will ultimately blur the distinction between the various types of businesses opened on Saturday, “the permitted and the prohibited,” Sa’ar said.

Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, denounced Sa’ar’s decision, stating that it “sets back Tel Aviv-Jaffa and the entire State of Israel by decades.”

“The municipality decision [that was nixed by Sa’ar] is measured, balanced, and reflects the prevailing reality for many years,” he said. “Precisely like in Bnei Brak the municipality can close all the stores, and in Nazareth it can open them all, so too the city amendment preserves the character of Shabbat in Tel Aviv and cities similar to it.”

Huldai added that he would combat the interior minister’s decision in court.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid decried the decision as well, arguing that it stirred up “unnecessary conflict” between the city’s secular and religious communities.

“The interior minister’s decision creates unnecessary conflict between the religious and secular,” he said. “This decision does not contribute to the state’s Jewish character, but only produces tensions in a city in that until now all lived in peace.”

Hiddush, an NGO promoting religious freedom in Israel, said in a statement Sunday that Sa’ar’s decision was “surprising and disappointing, and makes one wonder whether he has already begun investing in the ultra-Orthodox parties in hopes for their support for his candidacy for prime minister.”

The Tel Aviv City Council amendment represents the interests of Tel Aviv residents, and “raises anew the need to remove from the government’s control its ability to cancel amendments and intervene in the way the residents determine the character of their city,” Hiddush said.

Last June, the Supreme Court demanded the local Tel Aviv administration reevaluate its policies governing small businesses on Saturday. Up until that point, the convenience stores were legally barred from opening, but many opted to pay the small fine of a few hundred shekels and open anyway.

The Supreme Court ruling followed an appeal by small business owners and the local merchants union, who argued that the fines issued to offenders put smaller businesses at a disadvantage. While large co-ops like Tiv-Ta’am and AM:PM could afford to pay the fines, they proved exorbitant for private mini-marts, the small store owners argued.

In the explanatory text of his decision, Sa’ar wrote that the rationale behind the closing of businesses on Shabbat was twofold — for both social and religious-national reasons. The social component, he explained, is that a store that opens on Saturday denies its workers their right to a day of rest, while the religious-national rationale was based on the cultural and historical significance of the Sabbath for the Jewish character of the state, he said.

With regard to the workers, Sa’ar argued that the proposed amendment allowing some stores to open would “hamper commercial equal opportunity and allow unfair competition between business owners of means and small businesses. It would create pressure for small businesses to open their stores on Shabbat against the law, disrupt their day of rest and their right to spend time with their families on the day of rest [designated] for all.”

While businesses classified under “entertainment venues” — such as theaters, restaurants, and bars — are allowed to open on Shabbat without facing fines, Saar argued that the amendment would undermine that legal distinction.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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