Israeli minister orders supermarkets in Tel Aviv, Israel's secular centre, to close on Sabbath

JERUSALEM – Israel’s interior minister said he will no longer permit Tel Aviv supermarkets to stay open on the Jewish Sabbath, drawing a chorus of criticism Monday from liberal Israelis who see the regulation as religious coercion against secular society.

In his ruling, Minister Gideon Saar said he is rejecting the city’s proposed bylaws to allow supermarkets to remain open from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

The existing arrangement “disproportionately harms the value of the Sabbath as the general day of rest in Israel,” Saar said in the ruling. Saar said he would give an exception to three major tourist sites and gas station convenience stores.

Stores are closed in most other Israeli cities because Jewish religious law prohibits work on the Sabbath. But in Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial and cultural capital known for its round-the-clock lifestyle, more than 300 supermarkets remain open on the Sabbath, according to the Interior Ministry.

Stores already were supposed to remain closed on the Sabbath. But in reality, the municipality turned a blind eye, charging stores that stayed open a $200 fine. The system had drawn fire from small stores that said the fine gave a competitive advantage to larger chains that could more easily absorb the cost.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the fines did not effectively enforce the law, and so the municipality proposed new bylaws to allow those stores that had been open to remain open legally, and to prohibit other stores from opening, but Saar rejected the proposal.

A spokesman for Saar, Amatzia Bar Moshe, said Tel Aviv officials will now be compelled to shut down any supermarkets that stay open on the Sabbath, effective this weekend.

Tel Aviv is seen by Israelis as a bastion of secular culture, and the new ruling stirred anger among secular Israeli figureheads. Veteran Israeli actress Gila Almagor told Army Radio that religious coercion is spreading “like cancer,” and Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid called the ruling “a mistake.”

Israeli media speculated that Saar’s ruling stems from his desire to curry favour with ultra-Orthodox religious Jewish political parties for a possible future run for prime minister. Saar, 47, is a rising star in the ruling Likud Party and is widely seen as a potential successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.