Israeli society is witnessing times of unusual tumult surrounding the issue of Shabbat in the public domain. A government minister has quit his job to defend the honor of the Sabbath, and another minister deliberately transgressed the Sabbath to support the rights of the secular population.
At the same time, an ongoing battle, ideological, legal and at times physical, continues on its seemingly interminable course over the place of progressive Judaism in the Jewish state, most noticeably at the Western Wall, the site of intense spiritual and national meaning for the Jewish people.
And the myriad other concerns pertaining to the religion and state nexus are always bubbling close to the surface, be it ongoing demands for civil marriage, including gay marriage, the conversion imbroglio, or the kashrut supervision market.
Israel Hofsheet is one organization fighting on several of these fronts, advocating a pluralist vision for the Jewish state.
But, says Israel Hofsheet executive director Uri Keidar, the organization does not advocate an absolute separation of religion and state, but, rather, a framework that respects Israel’s nature as both a Jewish and democratic state, with the interpretation of “democratic” referring to the rights of nonreligious and non-Orthodox citizens.
“We don’t want a total separation of religion and state. Rather, we want to regulate how religion interacts with the state, so that there should be a place for everyone, and so that Judaism draws people in and doesn’t distance them,” says Keidar.
“There needs to be a place for more opinions, more variety – for example, by letting other groups enter the kashrut market, recognizing rabbis apart from those of the rabbinate, creating a civil marriage track, including for LGBT people, and allowing people in Israel to marry the way they want to,” he says.
THE ISSUE of Shabbat is one that Keidar points to as having a potentially explosive impact.
The recently approved mini-markets law, which will allow the interior minister to thwart any local authority passing a bylaw allowing shops to open on Shabbat, has sparked significant opposition, and led to several local authorities defying the new legislation and passing such bylaws.
And a recent crackdown in Ashdod against businesses, and restaurants that open on Shabbat has been strongly protested by furious city residents who see such measures as an illegitimate imposition on their life choices. Many residents also allege that the new legislation has emboldened Haredi activists to demand heightened enforcement measures.
Keidar says that Israel Hofsheet welcomes a debate about limiting commercial activity on Shabbat, saying that the Sabbath should not become like any other day of the week. At the same time, however, the discussion on the issue should make allowances for the religiously diverse nature of the country.
“I don’t care what happens in Bnei Brak on Shabbat, and people enjoy their religious Shabbat there and that’s fine. At the same time, why is it their business what I do at home and how I behave on Shabbat?
“Pushing the public on this issue is doing great damage and is being done by people who are doing the most to distance the public from Judaism. The attempt to make people do Shabbat like Bnei Brak doesn’t help Israel or Judaism.”
And Keidar believes that pressure on the secular and traditional public over what’s available for them on Shabbat is bringing about unseen political activism over this issue.
The bylaws passed in Rishon Lezion, Holon, Givatayim, Ramat Gan, Modi’in and Herzliya, says Keidar, are evidence of the backlash from the nonreligious public against the mini-markets law that was advanced at the behest of the Haredi parties under the threat that they could even topple the government if this demand were not met.
And, says Keidar, the demonstrations in Ashdod, Givatayim and Ramat Gan on this issue are almost unprecedented, and are evidence of the nonreligious community beginning to awaken on religion and state issues.
“They are trying to force the hand of the pluralist community, and they are responding. And it’s amazing, and it’s gladdening and it’s fun,” he says.
KEIDAR DOES NOT blame the Haredi politicians for the current state of affairs, and instead says that the focus should be on the nonreligious coalition parties Likud, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu.
“It doesn’t bother me that [Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov] Litzman and [Interior Minister Arye] Deri are Haredi and advance these policies. I’m interested in the non-Haredim and where they are, where [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon are. They are the story. They weren’t elected by Haredi votes. Likud and Kulanu voters are traditional voters who don’t have any problem going to synagogue in the morning and then going to the beach and a football match later on.
“So the story isn’t [about whether there is] religious coercion but about the cowardice of the non-Haredi politicians that bothers me.”
Questioned as to whether the dominance of the religious parties over religious affairs is simply a product of Israel’s electoral system and the necessity of coalition governments, Keidar argues that if the nonreligious parties want to take these issues seriously, they could do so, pointing out that all coalition parties right now have a veto over religion and state issues.
“There are 21 votes for religious parties, a sixth of the Knesset, and at the end of the day, the majority is the majority, he contends.
But he also acknowledges that despite the disagreement of many Israelis with government policy on Shabbat, marriage and the like, the public has not until now put much political emphasis on such issues.
“What’s sad is that no one says we have our redlines and that we’ll also determine what is Jewish and democratic, not just you [the religious], and that Judaism isn’t just yours, we have our own Judaism,” he says.
“But there is a significant public awakening on this issue. People are demonstrating outside their local municipal councils, and such protests traditionally have happened only in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“The pluralist community needs to show that it can throw its weight about just like the Haredim. And alongside security and economic issues, they need to show that religion and state issues are important to them, too, and our identity.”
It is unclear where this activism will lead and what effect it will have, particularly regarding Shabbat. Some of the municipal bylaws allowing shops to open were passed before the Knesset legislation, meaning there will be legal challenges if their implementation is blocked. Others were passed afterward, meaning it will be easier for Shas leader Deri to block them.
But Keidar’s broader point remains valid. Although the general Jewish public has not placed much political emphasis on the legislative demands of the religious parties until now, it appears that the nonreligious public does indeed have some redlines of its own which it is unwilling to concede.
Whether that will translate into real change, a broader, franker, more honest debate on the place of religion in the public domain, and even political change, remains to be seen.