The cabinet on Sunday transferred authority over Tel Aviv’s proposed municipal bylaw permitting certain numbers of grocery stores to open on Shabbat back to Interior Minister and Shas leader Arye Deri, just over a year after it was transferred out of his hands.
The bylaw has turned into a hot potato in the cabinet, with Deri and several previous interior ministers having sought to avoid responsibility for it, while the cabinet has scrambled to avoid making a decision.
In August 2014, the Tel Aviv City Council approved a bylaw allowing greater numbers of grocery stores to open on the Sabbath, due to ongoing problems for those which did open in contravention of the existing bylaws and the status quo on Shabbat issues.
It is in the authority of the interior minister to either allow a municipal bylaw to take effect, which is what usually happens, reject it, or delay its implementation.
The interior minister in August 2014 was Gideon Sa’ar of the Likud; he put a hold on the bylaw, largely due to the political problems inherent in approving such an ordinance, and soon after resigned from the government.
Gilad Erdan, also of the Likud, was the next in line to field this political grenade when he was appointed interior minister in November 2014, but after failing to make a decision for just under a month, he was let off the hook when the government fell in December.
Silvan Shalom of the Likud became the interior minister in May 2015 upon the formation of the new government, and he then tried to pass responsibility for dealing with the bylaw to another minister, claiming he had a conflict of interest over the matter.
That strategy did not pan out. Shalom was forced to resign due to allegations of sexual harassment against him (which ultimately did not lead to legal action against him).
In December 2015, when Deri was economy minister and three weeks before he was appointed interior minister, the cabinet voted to take way the authority of the interior minister specifically over the Tel Aviv bylaw.
In that decision, the cabinet decided to establish a committee of directors-general of the Interior, Justice, Religious Services and Economy ministries, chaired by director of the Prime Minister’s Office Eli Groner, to draw up possible policies the government could adopt, which have now been submitted.
The committee made its recommendations earlier this month, but the cabinet once again failed to make a decision, saying that it needed more time to evaluate the situation since a proposed union of the Tel Aviv and Bat Yam municipalities meant that the bylaw might affect Bat Yam residents as well.
This lack of decision was widely derided by activist groups as another failure of the government to make a decision over the matter.
On Sunday, the cabinet decided to return the issue to Interior Minister Deri, giving him responsibility over the bylaw once again.
Deri said after the decision that “I will study the issue in depth, establish hearings, and after years of delay make a decision.”
Late last year, Deri said that he was reluctant to impose religiously coercive policies on the residents of Tel Aviv.
“We [the heads of the haredi political parties] understand that this is not a halachic state, we still haven’t got to the days of the Messiah, and we haven’t got to the ideal place where all of the Jewish people understands what the essence of Shabbat is,” Deri told Kol Hai Radio. “At the end of the day, they [the secular community] need to decide what Shabbat they want. We won’t force on anyone what to do.”
In the meantime, the issue has reached the High Court of Justice, which held a hearing on the issue earlier this month. Critics of the government over the bylaw have accused it of seeking to pass responsibility over the matter to the High Court, because of the politically sensitive nature of the problem.
The political quandary facing the country’s non-haredi politicians is that on the one hand they are loathe to upset the haredi public and political leadership by being tarred with the brush of permitting Sabbath desecration.
On the other hand, they are reluctant for obvious reasons to shut down a largely secular city on Shabbat thereby angering the political constituency there.
Despite this attitude, the haredi political parties are being constantly pushed into hardline positions by the clamorous online haredi news media, which frequently questions whether the ultra-Orthodox politicians are working hard enough to preserve “haredi values” in the public sphere.
Following Sunday’s cabinet decision to restore authority over the bylaw to Deri, Meretz representative on the Tel Aviv City Council Mickey Gitzin said the saga had to come to an end.
“The foot-dragging and time wasting of the government in approving the bylaw is a disgrace to Shabbat,” said Gitzin.
“Rabbi Deri said several months ago that Israel is a secular state, and so he should recognize the diversity of Israeli society regarding Shabbat and not let political pressure force [a decision] against Tel Aviv residents.”
The religious-Zionist activist group Neemanei Torah Va’Avodah said that the government was simply trying to avoid making a politically unpleasant decision.
“We call on the government and Interior Minister Deri to stop playing with the issue of Shabbat as if it is a game of pass the parcel, and bring about a broad and comprehensive arrangement for Shabbat in the public realm, in the spirit of the Gavison-Medan Covenant,” the group said.
The Gavison-Medan Covenant is a broad plan drawn up over a decade ago as a framework for coexistence between religious and secular Jews in Israel.