A POSTER overlooking the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv reads: ‘For one Shabbat, be available just for the family’.
There is much hypocrisy, cynicism and chutzpah in the reaction of haredi and religious politicians to the High Court’s decision Wednesday permitting Shabbat commerce in Tel Aviv.
For years, the Tel Aviv Municipality turned a blind eye to widespread Shabbat desecration in the predominantly secular city. The High Court of Justice ordered the municipality to either enforce the old bylaws which outlawed Shabbat desecration or replace them with new ones that permitted some businesses to remain open, but closed others. Allowing municipal laws to be trampled weekly generated an atmosphere of anarchy and lack of respect for the law, argued the justices.
In March 2014, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality came up with a new bylaw that sought to restrict public desecration of the Shabbat, but which more adequately reflected the city’s secular character.
Religious and traditional-minded lawmakers attacked the new bylaw, but did nothing. The interior minister has the final say on whether to uphold or overrule a municipal bylaw. However, the Likud’s Silvan Shalom and Gideon Sa’ar sidestepped the issue, deciding not to decide. So did Interior Minister Arye Deri, who dragged his feet until finally this week the High Court rejected yet another request by the state to delay the decision and upheld the bylaw.
Narrow political calculations prevented Deri and his predecessors from intervening. Backlash against moves considered to be religious coercion have brought to power political parties with a decidedly secular agenda. It happened in 2003 with the rise to power of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid’s Shinui Party. Deri and other haredi and religious lawmakers were apparently concerned that a move to coercively enforce the Sabbath in Tel Aviv, a city that pulses to a decidedly non-sectarian beat, would strengthen Yesh Atid, a party headed by Lapid’s son, Yair.
In any event, it is more convenient for Deri and his religious cohorts in the Knesset to maintain a leadership vacuum and wait for the court to intervene. Then, they can conveniently attack the “dictatorship” of the High Court.
This is not only cynical; it is also dangerous to Israel’s democracy. A strong judiciary is essential for the continued protection of the rights of those who lack political representation.
Besides Palestinians, there are many groups within Israeli society that lack strong political representation, particularly those on the extreme Left and the extreme Right, but also groups such as foreign workers.
Each time the High Court is dragged into a controversial political battle because politicians are too timid to make decisions or pass laws, the judiciary is weakened. It is attacked for its activism, when in reality it is the lack of political leadership that is to blame.
What makes the position of haredi politicians like Deri on Shabbat desecration in Tel Aviv all the more infuriating is its hypocrisy. In a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of haredim will be celebrating Lag Ba’omer, which falls this year on Saturday night.
The massive preparations for the events on Mount Meron will entail widespread Shabbat desecration, particularly by thousands of police and security personnel. If past years are any indication, haredi leaders will reject the call by Modern Orthodox rabbis to postpone the festivities by a day. And haredi politicians will not dare to come out publicly against the haredi rabbinic leadership.
Haredi politicians have no problem attacking the High Court and are willing to pass legislation that would bypass the authority of the judiciary. They have no qualms about forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have chosen a secular lifestyle in Tel Aviv to do without public transportation or buy basic goods at their local grocery store.
But they would not dare to pass a law preventing large public celebrations of Lag Ba’omer, complete with huge bonfires on Saturday night, even if doing so entails employing thousands of extra policemen, security personnel and firemen who will be forced to work on Shabbat in preparation for the festivities. What about their right to Shabbat as a day of rest? Matters of faith and religious observance are best left up to individuals to decide. True, this is a Jewish and democratic state. Part of the Jewishness of Israel is making sure that no one is forced to work on Shabbat against his or her will. That right to religious freedom is already protected in law. Legislation that uses fines and punishment to force Israelis to keep Shabbat should not be.
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