Haredim led by the Gerrer Rebbe and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv have mounted an unofficial boycott of a national supermarket chain.
To force its stores…
…to close on Shabbat (the Sabbath).
This irked many secular Israelis, who found their grocery stores shuttered on Shabbat – even in wholly secular neighborhoods.
But the conglomerate that owns the supermarkets is not yet in full compliance with haredi demands, so haredim launched the boycott. Hardest hurt is the company's Bnei Brak store, which was almost totally empty of shoppers – until secular Jews decided to fight back, as the Jerusalem Post reports:
…Last week, in response to Weissman's decision to close down some of his AM:PM outlets, Sari Rozner Glazer and Anat Confortes announced a "counter-boycott" through a Facebook event entitled "We will buy at Shefa Shuk and we will keep AM:PM open 24/7." The announcement called on anyone who cared about the issue to "come shop for your Pessah needs" in the Shefa Shuk outlet in Bnei Brak, where many haredim have been refraining from shopping.
In their Facebook group, Glazer wrote: "The battle that was started by leaders in the haredi community against the group Dor Alon, owned by Dudi Weissman, is a battle against the people's freedom of choice. Last week, the pressure applied by the haredi community succeeded in closing outlets of AM: PM (owned by Weissman) on Shabbat."
"We will shop in Bnei Brak as if it were a routine," she added. "We will express our will as 'Tel Avivim,' secular Israelis, and as people who care to safeguard the liberal identity of freedom in Israel. We have buying power and the power to influence."
Last Friday in Bnei Brak, at about 11:30 a.m. (the "secular shopping" there was set for noon), as most supermarkets in haredi neighborhoods were bustling with shoppers preparing for Shabbat, the Shefa Shuk branch located on Rehov Hashlosha - unofficially boycotted by the haredi community - was quiet; roughly one week before Pessah, there weren't too many shoppers.
But outside the supermarket the scenario was quite different. Cameramen were waiting to film the defiant secular shoppers who were due to arrive. A large crowd of haredim were also outside to stage their own protest. A haredi man announced to the crowd: "We don't welcome people from other cities to come into our town and dictate how we should run our city. Those who choose to desecrate the holiness of the Shabbat will not be tolerated here in Bnei Brak."
The atmosphere outside Shefa Shuk resembled a rally, as police, security guards, cameramen and journalists milled about. But it was under control, as the secular shoppers had not yet arrived en masse.
Then the atmosphere changed. At about 12:20, secular youth started taking shopping carts to enter the store. Altercations between about 150 haredi demonstrators and some 80 secular shoppers began.
When asked by a haredi man why he was acting like a "goy," a young man in his 20s said: "I am a Jew just like you. My grandparents died in Auschwitz. The difference is that I have moved on and you are still living in the shtetl."
The haredi man responded: "A country without connection to its past has no future!"
The young secular man, who identified himself as Eli, told The Jerusalem Post he was present to make sure that the state doesn't "cave in to the demands of a minority."…
Anat Confortes, co-organizer of the event, said the secular community, a majority in Israel, had made its presence felt.
"Throughout the Israeli media, on Facebook and in coffee shops, people are talking about our initiative," she said. "Religious leaders are aware of our actions here. It's important to let them know that they can't stop us from living the way we want to."…
Even for me, this is a difficult situation. I'd like to see stores voluntarily closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays for several reasons, including guaranteeing workers a weekly day off and the boost a national day off gives to families.
But the idea of thrusting Shabbat observance on people who do not want it bothers me.
It's one thing to encourage observance through (relatively) passive means; it is quite another to achieve it by coercion and threats.
The battle to keep businesses closed on Shabbat was lost more than 40 years ago, when National Religious energies turned from Jewish education and the Jewishness of the state to settling land in the territories.
Haredim, who could have filled this gap, instead concentrated on sustaining their own economically unstable communities by, in effect, extorting money from successive Israeli governments. Their forays into protecting Shabbat ran to rocks hurled at innocent motorists and violent demonstrations, aimed at protecting their expanding neighborhoods from "impurity," not at helping Jews be more Jewish.
To attempt to win this battle by force is foolish. It may succeed in the short run, but it will eventually fail.
As "lucrative" as the haredi market may be, it is not so lucrative that creative businesspeople cannot find a way around marketing to it.
Sever AM:PM from Shefa Shuk and you have a viable economic entity that can avoid operating in Bnai Brak and northern Jerusalem, making the effects of any haredi boycott minuscule.
Tel Aviv will have its own non-haredi connected groceries. It will keep its 24/7 lifestyle.
Haredim – who think little about the damage done by their rock throwing, garbage burning, boycotting actions – will be content to wait a few years until they make up an even larger chunk of Israeli society. And then they will try again, if not through a boycott, then through Knesset legislation.
Eventually, demographics being what they are, haredim will succeed. And that, I'm afraid, will mark the beginning of the biggest exodus of Jews from Israel since the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Haredim will finally control the sandbox, not because the other players respect them or voted them in, but because the others will stop playing and walk away.
Should AM:PM and other stores be closed on Shabbat in a Jewish state?
In an ideal world, yes they should. But this world has been far less than ideal for a very long time, and no boycott, riot or backroom Knesset deal can change that.