It all began with what seemed like an innocuous appeal to the Tel Aviv Labor Court.
A group of players from Israel’s second soccer division, the National League, chose to challenge the decision to hold every weekend’s main match on Saturday afternoon as it violates their right not to play on Shabbat.
Soccer has been played in the country on the Jewish day of rest since the foundation of the Jewish state and countless appeals to change that tradition have been overlooked down the decades.
However, Labor Court Judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled three weeks ago that players can’t be forced to play during Shabbat, ordering that National League matches should not be held on Saturday until the sides meet again in court to try and resolve the matter.
“The holding of soccer matches on Shabbat without approval from the Ministry of Economy is a criminal offense and I will not approve it,” said Gilzer-Kats.
As a result, Israel Football Association chairman Ofer Eini announced last week that all local soccer action will be suspended from this Wednesday should Minister of the Economy Arye Deri not authorize the playing of matches on Saturday as he is entitled to do with any business.
The issue may have been resolved in minutes had Deri not been the leader of the ultra-Orthodox political party Shas. However, Deri was never going to take responsibility for such a decision, complicating the matter even further.
After 67 years of endless debates that resulted in little change, the recent sequence of events has brought the matter of soccer on Shabbat to a crossroads that could change the landscape of local sports forever.
While most Premier League players have kept quiet on the issue to date, watching their National League colleagues from afar, a recent poll by the players’ association discovered that over 68 percent of the players in the top flight would prefer not to play on Shabbat.
Over 240 players have signed a petition backing a change, although for the time being they have done their best to avoid addressing the matter publicly.
With TV money dictating when matches are played in this day and age, it is not rare that half of a given weekend’s Premier League action is played on Saturday after Shabbat and on Sunday and Monday. Therefore, it would be quite simple to ensure that no top-flight and National League matches take place on Shabbat.
However, the problem lay elsewhere.
Children and youth matches are played across the country from the early hours of every Saturday right until dusk, and where floodlights are available, also late into the evening. As long as Saturday is the only day of rest in Israel, finding another time to play all those matches is almost impossible, at least until more pitches can be lit at night.
Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev announced in a press conference on Tuesday that she has asked Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to declare that the country will not enforce the law regarding work on Shabbat over the next 60 days, during which a committee will be set up to find a long-term solution.
“Unfortunately, we can’t manage to find a solution which will ensure we avoid a strike,” Regev said on Tuesday.
“I’ve spoken to the attorney-general intensively over recent days in order to reach a solution that will result in a 60-day period in which the law will not be enforced.”
Regev also presented her compromise.
“Teams that don’t want to play on Shabbat, won’t play on Shabbat, while teams that do want to play will play,” she explained. “The current situation in which the league will not be played on Saturday, breaking the status quo that has existed for many years, is wrong in my opinion and we need to reach a compromise.”
Regev said that as long as a third of the players on the squad ask not to play on Shabbat, the entire team will have to follow suit.
“I know that any solution will cost the state money, but I’m willing to invest that money so teams that don’t want to play on Shabbat won’t need to,” added Regev. “This is a Jewish state and I want to respect that. The current situation in which teams are forced to play on Shabbat, preventing people who don’t want to play on Shabbat from taking part, is wrong.
“Until now many players and fans were distanced from the game. I think a compromise is the best solution. That is the process you expect in a democratic country. I don’t think that we need to reach a situation in which the regulator intervenes and I know that FIFA and UEFA feel the same way. Therefore, I’ve asked the attorney-general to allow play to continue and within 60 days we will find solutions. If we don’t reach a compromise the leagues won’t be able to continue and matches certainly won’t be able to be played on Shabbat.”
Eini is still hoping that the status quo can be maintained.
“There is no religion war and there will be no religion war,” the IFA chairman said on Tuesday. “We are interested in maintaining the status quo and in receiving a permit that will ensure that we are acting in accordance with the law.
“But the bottom line must be clear – we will only return to play when we will be told that we’re not breaking any law in doing so. This request is for the sake of the existence of soccer at all ages. The Premier League and senior leagues aren’t above the children’s leagues. We can’t accept that youth soccer will be fatally hurt. It is our future.”
Israeli soccer is eagerly awaiting Weinstein and Deri’s next move, and they seemingly will have to make it by Wednesday night in order for this coming weekend’s action to be held as scheduled.
Eini and many others may wish that the issue would have been allowed to lay dormant for many more decades.
However, one way or another a solution must be reached. Some painful compromises will have to be made, but there is no going back firstname.lastname@example.org