Monday 15 January 2018

Israel and Shabbat

The Knesset passed into law last week, the controversial so-called "Shabbat law", also labelled by some as the "minimarket law".  This new law requires local municipalities to first get the approval of interior minister before allowing stores in their municipal area to open on Shabbat.  Given the fact that the current interior minister is Shas leader Arye Deri, the immediate expectation is that such approval would generally be withheld, forcing stores across the country to be closed on Shabbat.  And furthermore, the extent to which stores are allowed to be open on Shabbat or not, will seem to depend upon who occupies the seat of the interior minister at any moment in time.

The issue of Shabbat in the Jewish state is a complex one.  The religious community will always wish to see the Shabbat respected to the fullest as set out by Jewish law.  This dictates, amongst other things, that stores will be closed from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday each week, and similarly on religious holidays.  Aside from the issue of violating Jewish law by opening stores on the holy Shabbat, the religious community also argues that the opening of stores on Shabbat forces people to work there on Shabbat.  These workers, they believe, would be better off spending Shabbat at home with their families resting, rather than being forced to work.  On the other hand, there is a substantial secular community living in Israel which prefers to have greater choice as to when they shop for their groceries and other items.  Many of them work long hours during the week, and find it impossible, difficult or inconvenient to do their shopping after work during the week.  For them, shopping on Shabbat is preferable.  Why should they not have the right to choose for themselves when the best shopping time is for them?  What about those people whose work during the week does not afford them enough to make a living, and who welcome the additional work hours at double time that the law allows on Shabbat?

Does Israel, as a democratic Jewish state, have the right to impose Jewish law on its citizens?  Does it really want to impose Jewish law?  How important is the observance of the Shabbat to the Jewish nature of Israel?  Israel's Jews are a mixed bunch.  Some are observant, and some are not.  Most of them are fiercely proud to be Jewish and to live in the Jewish state, and each expresses their Jewish identity in a different way.  The statistics show that between 20% and 30% of the Jews in Israel consider themselves to be ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox.  On the other end of the spectrum, around 40% of Jewish Israelis consider themselves to be secular.  So the balance of power rests with those who consider themselves to be traditional.  From this, we can see that there is no obvious single view that emerges concerning the importance of Shabbat observance.  This was reflected in the law that was in force until now, that allowed each municipality to choose for itself what its policy regarding store-opening on Shabbat would be.  This was also borne out in the High Court decision that confirmed this method of deciding.  Each municipality can decide, according to the demographics of its local area, whether stores will be open on Shabbat or not.  Some decide yes, others decide no.  Some have a mixed policy of forcing stores in certain areas to close, while allowing stores in other areas to be open.  One thing that remains certain is that there will also be those who disagree with whatever happens in their local vicinity.  There is no possible way of satisfying all the people in any particular locality.

The authorities have previously intervened in some ways in order to impose some element of Shabbat observance in Israel.  El Al, Israel's national airline does not fly on Shabbat or on Jewish holidays.  Banks, supermarkets and many other facilities are prohibited from opening on Shabbat.  All hotels in Israel that wish to be certified by the Ministry of Tourism, are forced to serve food that is kosher.  This requires a certain level of observance of Shabbat.  Much of Israel's public transport does not operate on Shabbat.  It seems to me, however, that this has extended a little too far with the government passing the recent Shabbat law.

It seems that Interior Minister Arye Deri also feels the same.  Despite his personal views that Shabbat should be observed, he has pledged not to exercise the power that the new law gives him to enforce Shabbat observance.  Instead, he has indicated that he will allow each municipality to decide for themselves as they have done before.  This view does not, however, remove the possibility that a future interior minister may exercise his power under the law in one direction or the other.  For this reason, the law seems to me to be a step too far.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the law has become mixed up in Israeli party politics.  Essentially, the enactment of this law has served to give Health Minister Yossi Litzman a path back to his ministerial position, after resigning from the government over his opposition to work being undertaken on Israeli railway infrastructure on Shabbat.  Now that the new Shabbat law is on the statute books, he can prove to his party and electorate that he has forced a change to the government policy on Shabbat, and is justified in returning to the government.  The illusion seems to hide the reality in this case.

The often remembered Ahad Ha'am quote says, "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews".  There is no doubt that Shabbat observance has been a central tenet around which Jews have focused during the thousands of years of exile, and which has helped to maintain some element of identity and unity.  It is interesting that, during the years of exile, Shabbat was observed out of free will, and not out of being forced on anybody.  It seems to me that it is desirable to continue the observance out of free will, now that we have a Jewish state that enables this more than at any time during Jewish history.  Forcing it on anybody seems counterproductive. 

The real question is whether Shabbat observance and the traditional Shabbat atmosphere in Israel can survive the law, or whether the law will potentially force people away from it.  I have no doubt that free will is much stronger than laws that are imposed.  The Shabbat is no exception.

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