Thousands of residents of the southern city of Ashdod protested on Saturday against the closure of businesses in the city on Shabbat.
The demonstration comes week after the Knesset passed a law granting the interior minister the power to override city bylaws allowing mini-markets to open on the Jewish day rest. Critics of the legislation decried the religious decree, while proponents of the law said it was necessary to maintain the longstanding status quo in Israel regarding businesses operating on Shabbat.
Coinciding with the law’s passage, the city has stepped up its enforcement of a bylaw preventing businesses from opening on Shabbat, with the municipality publishing a help wanted ad for Shabbat inspectors earlier this week.
During the protest in Ashdod, demonstrators accused the city’s municipality of discriminating against secular residents and engaging in “religious coercion.”
“We came to return Ashdod to Ashdodians,” demonstrators chanted, according to Hadashot TV news. “We aren’t against the religious, but we say to the ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset: ‘Get your hands off Ashdod.'”
Demonstrators also called for Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri to resign.
A large number of the protesters rallied outside Ashdod’s city hall. Israel Radio put the total numbers of protesters at 2,500.
Ashdod, which has a large number of residents from the former Soviet Union, has seen an increase in the city’s ultra-Orthodox population in recent years, leading to political tensions between the two groups over issues pertaining to religious observance.
Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party has long campaigned against religious influence in the public sphere, arrived at the rally in a show of support for the protesters and called for the mini-markets law to be nixed.
“We came here to Ashdod because this insulting mini-markets law must go,” he said. “Ultra-Orthodox coercion can’t run the State of Israel.”
Lapid also said he would cancel the law if his party wins the next elections. Recent polls have put Yesh Atid neck-and-neck with Likud.
Earlier, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visited an open shopping area in the city.
His Yisrael Beytenu party, whose supporters include a large number of secular Israelis from the former Soviet Union, opposed the mini-market law, despite being in the coalition.
“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,” Hadashot news quoted Liberman as saying.
“Just as I respect those who go to synagogue on Shabbat, I expect them to respect those who go to buy coffee.”
— חדשות סרוגים (@SrugimNews) January 20, 2018
Religious media outlets criticized Liberman for his visit in Ashdod, focusing on his violation of Jewish law pertaining to Shabbat, and his decision to ban Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi and two others rabbis from participating in military events, after they spoke out against the integration of female soldiers.