TEL AVIV — It's a bright Saturday morning and shopkeepers at thetrendy Tel Aviv Port shopping mall are bracing for the thousands ofIsraeli families about to descend upon the city's busiest outdoorretail promenade. But among the first visitors many Saturdays is a city inspector,who goes store to store issuing $200 citations to business ownersfor violating Tel Aviv's ordinance against conducting commerce onthe Jewish Sabbath. Small-shop owners fire off cellphone text messages to warn oneanother that the inspector is making the rounds; then they chaseout customers and shut their doors until he passes. Larger chainsshrug off the ticket as a cost of business, far overshadowed by theprofits they stand to make. |
A single pair of jeans at the Levi'sstore costs more than the fine. Hoping to cash in on Israelis' growing affluence and lust forshopping, malls, retailers, restaurants and cinemas are throwingopen their doors on Saturdays. But the trend butts up againstlongtime government restrictions and infuriates religious groupsthat want the day preserved as one of rest. Though national law prohibits employing Jews on Saturday,enforcement has been sporadic, usually depending on the religiousconviction of the sitting labor minister, according to publicpolicy expert Guy Ben-Porat at Ben-Gurion University. Some citiesalso have laws against conducting business on Saturday, thoughSupreme Court rulings have upheld the right of certain types ofcommerce, including gas stations and cinemas.
It's among the many secular-religious debates dividing Israelis.But while most such clashes end up at the government's doorstep,the battle over shopping on the Sabbath is largely being dictatedby the pocketbook, as retailers balance potential profits with abacklash, or boycotts, by the ultra-Orthodox. On one side are secular and religiously tolerant consumers andbusiness owners, who have reaped much of the benefit of Israel's recent economic growth and view the country as a modern,Western-leaning society along the lines of the United States ormuch of Europe. "Tel Aviv calls itself the 'city that never sleeps,'" said NiritOren-Sternberg, owner of a designer home furnishings store at thePort. "So it's outrageous that we get fined for being open onSaturday.
Israelis love shopping. They work hard all week and thisgives them an opportunity to shop on the weekend. If someone findsthat offensive then they don't have to come." The crowds that pack the Port and the 30 other malls now openSaturdays around the country suggest that many Israelis agree. Onaverage, retailers who open on Saturday say the day accounts for40% of their weekly sales.
As many as half a million Israelis hitthe malls every Saturday, according to industry estimates. "Saturday can be a massive day," said Ofer Shechter, chiefexecutive of ProMall, which manages 35 malls, half of which are nowopen on Saturday. "The motivation is money." On the other side are leaders of Israel's small but politicallyinfluential ultra-Orthodox community, known as haredim. They pointto biblical commands about observing the Sabbath and ask: If Israeldoesn't honor them, who will? "We have no right to the land of Israel without observing the Torahand its commandments," said Shmuel Pappenheim, a spokesman for anumbrella group of haredi organizations. "If we don't follow it andpreserve the Sabbath, we might as well give up our claim and giveit to the Arabs." Haredi leaders are seeking to slow the trend of shops opening onSaturdays by flexing their own economic muscle.
The community hasenjoyed success on some issues, pressuring private bus companies toprovide separate seating for men and women and phone makers tooffer so-called kosher cellphones that restrict Internet access andtext messaging. With an estimated $1.5 billion in annual buying power, the haredicommunity set up the Shabbat Committee in 2006 to monitor Sabbathobservation and boycott businesses that ran afoul of its rules. Their biggest target so far is businessman Dudi Weissman, whooperates a chain of 24-hour markets called AM:PM. He also owns asupermarket chain, Shefa Shuk, that does about 40% of its businesswith the haredim. Though AM:PM stores have always remained closed on Saturday inultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, the Shabbat Committee demandedthat Weissman close all of his stores on the Sabbath.
When herefused, they called for a boycott of his supermarkets. Since then,some of the stores have shut down, though company officials havesaid the closures were unrelated to the boycott. Weissman declined to comment, as did leaders of the ShabbatCommittee. To date, most of his AM:PM stores remain open onSaturdays, leading even supporters of observing the Sabbath toquestion whether the effort succeeded.
"Boycotts are ineffective," said Yakov Halperin, head of amall-based optometry chain that closes all of its 130 offices onSaturday, even though it costs the company significant revenue."They work for a limited time, but then they break down because thereligious public is not united." Still, there is a chilling effect. Haifa-based Cinemall, a largeshopping complex on the outskirts of the port city, is consideringbecoming the latest mall to open on Saturdays, perhaps this fall.But the owner is hesitating, in part out of personal religiousbeliefs, a mall manager said. Business rivals noted that he alsoowns a supermarket chain that could be vulnerable to a boycott. Religious activists have succeeded in keeping most malls that arein city centers and near residential neighborhoods closed. Nearlyall the shopping centers currently open on Saturday are inindustrial zones or along the city edges.
In religious cities, likeJerusalem, only a few restaurants, cinemas and gas stations dare toopen. But experts predict more shops will open on Saturdays ascompetition intensifies. "If you look at the trends, secularization is winning big time inthis case," said Ben-Porat, who has studied the intersection ofreligion and business for years. "Just 20 years ago you couldhardly find anything open in the country on Saturday." He said the trend was bolstered in the 1990s, when Israel shiftedaway from socialism and experienced an influx of more than 1million Russian immigrants, many of whom were secular ornon-Jewish. "Ultimately this is an issue that is moving away from the politicalrealm," Ben-Porat said.
"It's really being decided by profits, notideology and not public policy." firstname.lastname@example.org Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed tothis report.
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