A Tempest Over Sabbath Laws...Gives Mc Donald's A Big Beef

Israel: deserts, kibbutzim, the Wailing Wall, and shopping malls. Yes, shopping malls. Since the opening of the first highly successful American-style mall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan in 1986, dozens have popped up all over.

But the latest one, which opened in mid-September, has sparked a row over religious laws--one of many such battles now raging in Israel. The two-story Ramat Aviv mall is located in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood just east of the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings whose residents include numerous members of the country's elite: Leah Rabin, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and dozens of top businesspeople. The mall's prime location has attracted leading designers such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, who opened their first Israeli stores there despite rents said by real estate experts to be the highest of any mall in the nation. "There is no other location like this in Israel when it comes to demographics," says Haim Barkan, vice-president of Africa Israel, the property company that built the mall.

The controversy erupted late last year, when Lev Leviev, an ultra-Orthodox businessman, paid $140 million to Bank Leumi for a majority stake in Africa Israel. The deal included the Ramat Aviv mall, which was then in the advanced stages of construction.

A relative newcomer to the Israeli business scene, the 40-year-old Leviev hails from Tashkent and made his fortune in polished diamonds and in trading and investments in the former Soviet Union. Soon after acquiring Africa Israel, he announced plans to shut down movie theaters and restaurants in the Ramat Aviv mall from Friday sundown to Saturday night, in strict accordance with Jewish religious law.

The decision was viewed by the city's secular majority as a casus belli in the growing battle over religious coercion in Tel Aviv, which styles itself "the Big Orange." Mayor Roni Milo takes pride in his city's being Israel's business, cultural, and 24-hour entertainment center. The issue was complicated because the previous owners had signed agreements to allow Sabbath operations by the places of entertainment.

DELIGHTED. An arbitrator, retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dov Levin, ruled last month that unless the city changed its totally ignored bylaws--which say that entertainment spots and eateries must close on the Sabbath--the mall would remain shut. Now, Mayor Milo says he will move for a change in the bylaws, a move the Orthodox say they will resist. And Africa Israel has quashed its deal with the former movie-theater operator in the mall and signed an agreement with another that has agreed not to operate on the Jewish day of rest.

Meanwhile, the store owners, none of them Orthodox, are delighted with the publicity. "The headlines gave us massive free exposure, so everyone knew about the mall," gloats Shimon Hahn, owner of the Hahn toy-store chain, which recently opened up in Ramat Aviv. Hahn and others report sales well beyond expectations. And none of them was planning to open on Saturdays anyway.


The American-style food court on the second floor is one of the mall's busiest locations. McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and Sbarro are among the eateries. But many of the restaurants had counted on weekend business. The loudest voice in the battle over Sabbath observance has been that of McDonald's, which opened its 50th Israeli restaurant at the mall. "We rack up about 40% of our sales on Saturdays," says Omri Padan, president of McDonald's Israel. Padan says McDonald's would not have opened in the mall had it known of the planned Sabbath closure.

When Jewish holidays are taken into account, McDonald's Ramat Aviv location will be shut down more than 70 days a year. Padan charges that Leviev attempted to get McDonald's to change its menu and remove cheeseburgers, which do not meet strict Jewish dietary laws as they mix meat and milk.

Leviev may have lost the battle of the beef. But the war over Sabbath observance never stops--even in Israel's city that never sleeps.