Bad Shabbat law

That High Court decision was a recognition that existing legislation empowers local governments to decide for themselves how to observe the Sabbath.

December 12, 2017 22:52
3 minute read.
Tel Aviv Synagogue


Let’s count the ways that a Shabbat bill passed in a first reading in the wee hours of the morning Tuesday will be bad for Israel – if, as expected, it is approved in a final vote.

First and foremost, it undermines the autonomy of local government. In October, the High Court of Justice upheld the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s right to allow a limited number of businesses – mostly mini-markets and convenience stores that cater to the city’s overwhelmingly secular population – to remain open on Shabbat.

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That High Court decision was a recognition that existing legislation empowers local governments to decide for themselves how to observe the Sabbath.

The State of Israel is a mosaic of very different communities – some religious some not, some Jewish some not – that have a right to determine for themselves how their day of rest is observed. Even within a given city, there are religious and nonreligious neighborhoods, as well as of course mixed neighborhoods. Only local governments, voted into power by locals, are sensitive to these distinctions. Bnei Brak is not Beersheba, Nazareth is not Jerusalem.

In contrast, the so-called “mini-market bill,” passed under pressure from Haredi and Modern Orthodox coalition members, transfers power from the local to the central government. The bill would empower the interior minister to block municipal bylaws regarding the opening of businesses on Shabbat from his office in Jerusalem.

If the interior minister happens to be Arye Deri of Shas, he will deny requests for operating businesses on Shabbat no matter how secular the neighborhood or city happens to be, because he represents a religious constituency on the national level that expects him to protect the Shabbat in accordance with Orthodox practice.

Second, the “mini-market bill” undermines the High Court. The legislation goes against the spirit of October’s decision, which reaffirmed that local government is the final arbiter of how Shabbat should be observed in the public square. Deri and other Haredi politicians are presenting the bill as a reaction to the High Court’s secularism and activism.

But in reality, the court only handed down a decision after Deri refused to explain to the court why he was opposed to Tel Aviv’s bylaws. Deri, a seasoned and cynical politician, knew that he would lose no matter what he did. If he tried to argue against the bylaw as his predecessor Gideon Sa’ar had, he would be accused of religious coercion. If he okayed the bylaw, his Haredi constituency would be outraged. Better to let the High Court decide, then bash the court and pass a law that makes any changes in the religious status quo subject to the interior minister’s approval.

Third, the “mini-market bill” was passed as a result of a political jockeying designed to extend the life of the government coalition. Even in the most right-wing, religious government in recent history, the legislation lacked a clear majority of support. Only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal involvement ensured that the bill passed its first reading. The two Haredi factions – Shas and United Torah Judaism – had threatened that otherwise they would topple the coalition.

But while the short-term result will be that the government coalition remains intact, the bill might very well be a strategic mistake for Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Its passage will likely strengthen Avi Gabbay’s Labor Party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. History has shown that religious coercion can result in a secular backlash. The rise of Shinui in 2003 can be explained by this. So can the rise of Yesh Atid in 2013.

The State of Israel is not just democratic, it is also Jewish.

And it is important to protect the Jewish character of the state. The Hours of Work and Rest Law already ensures that no Jew is forced to work on Shabbat (and no non-Jew is forced to work on his or her day of rest).

In simple terms, the “mini-market bill” is nothing more than straight-up religious coercion.

But the Hours of Work and Rest Law says nothing about how the character of a given city should be determined.

That is best left up to local authorities, which are obligated by law to take into consideration both the religious and socioeconomic aspects of maintaining Shabbat as a day or rest. National politicians based in Jerusalem who are detached from local realities and considerations should not be the ones making these decisions.

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