On any Saturday, even in cities with large religious populations like Jerusalem, the convenience stores are always busy. Families fill up on gas to visit the grandparents, and home cooks grab last-minute ingredients for Sabbath lunch. The majority of secular Israelis have long depended on the few stores open on Shabbat to provide necessities.
But three veteran NIF grantees and our action arm Shatil are now fighting implementation of a new law that will provide legal sanction for the government to clamp down on Israel’s mini-markets that stay open on Shabbat. Although the law theoretically exempts existing stores, it grants authority to the (ultra-Orthodox) Interior Minister to block local ordinances that allow grocery stores and mini-markets to open on Shabbat.
The law is a battleground for religious freedom as well as for the autonomy of Israel’s non-religious cities and towns to set the rules for their own Shabbat observance.
“For years, the majority of secular Israeli citizens were indifferent to incursions by the ultra-Orthodox on issues like prayer space at the Western Wall,” said Shatil Religious Freedom Director Yael Yechieli. “But this law has woken the public up – they are concerned, they are angry, they are talking to their lawmakers and they are demonstrating.”
“Even many religious Israelis agree that Shabbat observance is up to the conscience and practices of each individual. Our coalition of secular, traditional and religious activists will continue to struggle to broaden the rights of both Israeli individuals and municipalities to make their own decisions about Shabbat.”
Be Free Israel, the leading grassroots organization working for religious freedom in Israel, spearheaded a sophisticated campaign against the law, working alongside Shatil’s Free Cities Forum, which was established to fight religious coercion at the municipal level. The Secular Forum, a new NIF grantee that is fighting for a secular public education system and against religious radicalization, also helped organize the grassroots. And Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah, which represents a Modern Orthodox point of view, worked to convince religious lawmakers to vote against or abstain from the vote. Enlisting lawmakers from the political opposition, the activists managed to secure an extremely close vote, as well as new efforts by the municipalities themselves to pass liberal Shabbat ordinances before the law could take effect.
But the law did pass by a margin of just one vote. And according to a recording of a private meeting held by United Torah Judaism head Moshe Gafni, the prime minister has promised his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners that hundreds of non-Jewish inspectors will soon be hired to close stores which are illegally open on Shabbat. NIF stands for religious freedom in Israel and our allies are gearing up for a continuing campaign, leveraging and expanding the massive public discourse already created against the law. Major demonstrations took place last week across Israel, in cities like Ashdod and Netanya, protesting the new law and religious coercion in general.