After five years of litigation, Israel’s High Court ruled on Tuesday that the Tel Aviv Municipality is obligated to enforce the law requiring businesses to close on Shabbos.
The judges determined that the fines imposed on violators were not a meaningful deterrent and that more must be done to enforce the law.
Judge Miriam Naor stated the case bluntly, that “the municipality makes do with ridiculous fines of a few hundred shekels per week, and the [supermarket] chains reached the conclusion they’re better off paying it and continuing to operate on Shabbos.”
The decision, issued by High Court President Justice Asher Grunis, Naor and Justice Elyakim Rubinstein reversed a previous ruling by the Tel Aviv magistrate’s court following an appeal by small businesses and the local merchants union, who argued that the failure to enforce the law had created an unfair business situation. While large co-ops like Tiv-Ta’am and AM:PM could afford to pay the fines, they are prohibitive for small markets, the plaintiffs argued.
In Tuesday’s decision, the justices also suggested that the Tel Aviv municipality’s policy of lax enforcement was motivated by financial gain, from fines paid by businesses that violate the law. Currently, businesses caught opening their doors to customers on Shabbos are fined 730 shekels.
The magistrate’s court had said in February 2012 it was largely a political matter, and referred it back to the city to handle.
However, lest the High Court’s ruling be construed as a ringing defense of Shabbos, Naor also reminded Tel Aviv that the option to allow businesses to desecrate Shabbos remained open, provided it “change[s] the municipal law.” It was only unacceptable, she said, to maintain a policy of knowingly ignoring the law.
Tel Aviv City Hall issued a statement in response, saying it would study the ruling but would ensure the city remained “free.” “We will find a solution that will balance Shabbos rest with the freedom the city has always offered,” read the statement.
Attorney Yechezkel Reinhartz, who represented Petach Tikvah, Rechovot and Givatayim in their legal battle with Tiv-Tam, welcomed the court’s decision. “The court acted correctly,” he said in ordering the municipality to enforce the law. He stressed that the decision was not of a religious character, but a social one, meant, like previous High Court rulings on the matter, to ensure the right of workers to their day of rest.