The High Court ordered the Tel Aviv municipality Tuesday to take steps to ensure the closure of several stores that have recently begun doing business on Shabbat in the city. The stores, belonging to the AM/PM convenience store chain, and Tiv Taam supermarket chain (which sells pork, seafood, and other outright non-kosher products) are in violation of laws requiring businesses to be closed inside cities, the court said.
High Court President Asher Gronis said that the issue had nothing to do with religion or “coercion,” but with violation of city bylaws. If the arrangement requiring businesses to be closed on Shabbat was no longer acceptable, given the fact that some residents saw the openings as a "victory for secularism," the city should take steps to change the law; until then, the law was to be upheld, he said.
The law in Tel Aviv requires businesses to close from the onset of Shabbat at sundown Friday, and to remain closed until Shabbat is over. The law does not apply to restaurants and places of entertainment, which are allowed to operate. Pharmacies and other “essential” businesses can apply for a permit to operate on Shabbat, which is usually granted.
The petition leading to the decision was brought not by religious authorities, but by a group of grocery store and other small business owners, who said that they were being subjected to unfair competition. The petition was first brought in 2007, claiming that the punishment meted out to violators of the law was in itself unfair.
The city would occasionally issue summonses to stores that violated the law, requiring them to pay a fine of NIS 680. The small storeowners said that the punishment was discriminatory, because the large chains that could afford to pay considered the fine a “cost of business", while they could not operate on Shabbat even if they wanted to, because they couldn't afford to pay the fine.
The city argued that it was doing everything it could by issuing the fines. The court disagreed, saying that the city had other tools at its disposal to enforce the law, such as depriving serial offenders of a business license. “Through its current policies, Tel Aviv is essentially encouraging the violation of the law, and this is a danger to the rule of law in Israel,” the court said, giving the city 60 days to come up with a plan to ensure that the stores – and the city – observe the law.