MKs Ruth Calderon of Yesh Atid and Elazar Stern of Hatnua intend to propose new legislation at the beginning of the Knesset’s winter session designed to give members of the public who do not observe Shabbat in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law greater opportunities for cultural and leisure activities.
The proposed law comes following a drawn-out struggle waged by the Tel Aviv Municipality to allow grocery stores in the city to remain open on Shabbat, a fight that prompted significant public debate over the nature of Shabbat and how the state relates to it.
The issue of opening businesses, employment and public transport on Shabbat is highly controversial, and religious politicians reacted immediately and negatively to the proposals, saying it would harm the Jewish character of the state.
Labor laws greatly restrict work on Shabbat without a special permit from the economy minister, while many municipalities prohibit businesses from opening on the Sabbath.
According to the legislation, state institutions would remain closed on Shabbat, while public establishments such as theaters, museums, national parks and zoos could open.
The new legislation would preserve the right of employees not to work on Shabbat, its proponents say, and manufacturing, trade and services would in general not take place.
But the law would allow municipalities to decide whether grocery stores, pharmacies and similar businesses can remain open, although such a decision would still need the approval of the Interior Ministry, as is the case now.
The proposed law would also allow municipal-run community centers to be kept open by the local authority for “cultural, social and spiritual activities,” and also allow local authorities to operate reduced public transport services.
Public transport is almost completely unavailable nationwide on Saturday.
“Today, the secular public has no suitable venue where they can go with their families and spend Shabbat in a meaningful way with their community,” an explanation for the law reads.
“The goal is to open community centers to the general public just like synagogues, which serve the religious public... to allow mass consumption of a range of leisure activities for all citizens,” the MKs argue.
According to Calderon and Stern, the legislation is based on the Gavison-Medan Convention, a set of proposals drawn up by Prof. Ruth Gavison and orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Medan in 2004, which address a wide range of religious- secular conflicts and presents possible solutions to them, based on a “consensual operating framework that enables the preservation of the lifestyles of the respective groups while emphasizing the common ground.”
Calderon said public disputes surrounding Shabbat were not about grocery stores but about Jewish and Israeli culture.
“The secular majority is reserved but will not allow its right to fulfill a free, Jewish life, according to its own path, to be taken away,” said Calderon. “The time has come for the state to outline the principles of activity on Shabbat in a way that allows all communities in Israel to fulfill the values of the Sabbath in their own style, and give this expression through legislation.”
The Forum of Small Businesses and Groceries in Tel Aviv, which has fought against the municipality’s desire to allow grocery stores to open on Shabbat, welcomed the bill, saying that it made a clear distinction between blanket commercial activity and entertainment, cultural-spiritual activity and leisurely pursuits.
But there was also significant criticism of the bill from secular as well as religious quarters.
Deputy director of the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, Shahar Ilan, said the opening of cultural institutions and restaurants is already part of the consensus in many cities, and the proposed legislation does not include many changes from the current situation.
In addition, MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) accused Calderon and Stern of “headline grabbing,” arguing that the national-religious Bayit Yehudi party would just veto the bill, as all coalition partners are entitled to do under the coalition agreement.
“We’re already full with empty promises whose only purpose is media headlines,” said Horowitz. “Civil partnerships, apartments for the young, tax benefits for samesex couples all began with a great cry and ended in a quiet, flatulent noise.”
Indeed, Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel of Bayit Yehudi roundly condemned the proposal.
“There are MKs who are seemingly obsessed with harming the Jewish character of the state,” he said. “Bills like these do not advance national debate and unity but, rather, distancing and division. There is no logic in advancing a law that will force workers to desecrate Shabbat, and MKs Stern and Calderon would be better advised to concentrate on strengthening the status of Shabbat as a day of rest for workers instead of unnecessary and damaging proposals.”
Shas MK Eli Yishai said Stern and Calderon wanted to harm Judaism as a whole, and said their bill was politically motivated in the face of increasingly unfavorable polling figures for Yesh Atid and Hatnua.
“The desperate attempt to gather Knesset seats by harming the Jewish religion, and through the belief that this will get them back a vote or two, offends the intelligence of the voters, whom their law seeks to entice,” Yishai said.
“The Shabbat has guarded over us for 3,000 years and we are obligated to guard it in return.”