Israeli Parliament Tightens Limits to Shopping on Jewish Sabbath

  • Netanyahu averts coalition collapse by demanding party support
  • Secular parties file appeal, protesting religious coercion

A Jewish man speaks on the phone as he passes stores at an entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City on December 10, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel.

Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images Europe

Israel’s Knesset authorized an ultra-Orthodox cabinet minister to close stores on the Jewish Sabbath, narrowly averting a crisis that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned could bring down his government.

The so-called minimarkets law squeaked through in a 58-57 vote early Tuesday after an all-night session of parliament. For months, voting had been postponed by opponents who accused Netanyahu of buckling to coalition allies determined to impose religious law on Israel’s secular majority. An appeal to the High Court of Justice was filed shortly after the vote.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who was given authority to close stores in all municipalities that allow Sabbath shopping except Tel Aviv, posted a Twitter message hailing “a victory for Israel’s silent majority that wants to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority and wishes to relax on the day of rest.”

Israeli leaders have battled since the nation’s founding in 1948 over the role religious law should play in the Jewish state. The tug-of-war led to a compromise that gave rabbinical authorities control over weddings, divorces, conversions and applying Jewish dietary laws -- with similar powers for the Arab minority’s Muslim and Christian leadership. Stores were closed on the Sabbath with limited exceptions for restaurants, small groceries and places of entertainment.

Religious leaders have complained that over time, businesses openly violated the shopping ban, particularly mini-markets that proliferated across the country. Tel Aviv won a court challenge in April that allowed 24-hour stores to operate on Sabbath. An exception was also provided for convenience stores attached to gas stations.

Zehava Galon, a leader of the secular Meretz Party, immediately filed a court challenge. In a speech to parliament, she said the law is “unconstitutional because it disproportionately violates the basic rights of Israeli citizens to liberty, freedom of religion and freedom from religion.”

The bill was unpopular even in the governing coalition, leading Netanyahu to demand that all lawmakers turn out for the vote to defuse Deri’s threat to withdraw his party’s support and cause the government to collapse.

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