Spring Forward, Fall Back

On Friday, March 30 many Israelis awoke a bit groggy. We had lost an hour of sleep as our clocks sprang forward to Daylight Savings Time (DST). The idea was originally Ben Franklin's. As America's envoy to Paris, he advised Parisians in 1784 to rise early and save candles. "Time is money," he said. In 1905, a British builder, who liked playing golf and hated cutting his game short at dusk, proposed shifting the clock. Germany was the first nation to implement his idea during World War I to save electricity. What could be less religiously controversial than shifting an hour of the 14-hour summer daylight from sleep time to waking time? Alas, in Israel, nearly everything sparks religious controversy. Roads are a religious controversy. When a new section of the trans-Israel highway, route 6, was built in the north and bones turned up, haredim demonstrated, claiming the road desecrated a cemetery. And yes, even DST is a religious issue in Israel. Of the 70 countries that use DST, Israel is unique in defining when it is implemented according to a religious holiday. Europe and North America move back to winter time on the last Sunday in October. But in Israel, we return to winter time, by law, on the Sunday before Yom Kippur - 191 days from March 30, or a month and a half earlier. The length of DST in Israel is the shortest of all 70 nations who implement it. Why? So that the Yom Kippur fast should end earlier in the evening. DST does save Israel a bit of money. Ha'aretz columnist Nehemia Strassler says a total of 80 million shekels (about $24 m.) is saved thanks to a 0.5 percent reduction in electricity consumption. But it would be 20 m. shekels more if we made DST last 45 days more, as in America. Businesses like DST because it gives people more daylight time to shop. Some experts think it reduces traffic accidents by shifting driving to daylight. America's Department of Transportation once estimated that traffic fatalities fell by 0.7 percent during DST. But I think Israel's real net gain from DST is not economic, but social and political. DST serves as a model for compromise between the religious and non-religious sectors. Once, the dates DST began and ended were determined each year by a process of ad hoc political haggling. This created chaos. Microsoft Windows, for example, adjusted the time automatically for DST worldwide - except for Israel, because here DST was different each year. In 1999, Shas Minister of the Interior Eli Suissa decided to chop a month off DST, which was supposed to last until October 19. Great, said religious people. They could now say the selichot prayers preceding Yom Kippur at 11:30 p.m., rather than 12:30 a.m. Awful, said secular people. Sharp-tongued MK Yossi Sarid, then the head of the left-wing Meretz party, quipped: "Suissa thinks he is God. God said, 'Let there be light.' Suissa says, 'Let there be darkness'- in the middle of the summer." In this fight, Israel fell back. In 2005 a new Knesset law was passed, establishing the onset of DST yearly on the last Friday before April 2, and ending it on the Sunday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. No longer was DST unpredictable in Israel. Microsoft Windows recovered from its Jewish nervous breakdown. With this law, in its own small way, Israel made some progress - because by fixing the rules of the game, an annual source of acrimony between religious and secular, to determine the start and end of DST, was eliminated. Israel does not at present have a written constitution that would establish citizens' rights and obligations. Experts and legislators are currently preparing one, but it will still take a long time. As always, the religious-secular controversy is at the heart of the debate. Hopefully agreement will be reached through compromise. "Good fences make good neighbors," Robert Frost once wrote. By establishing clear legislative 'fences' through the political process, other secular-religious conflicts can be reduced. The DST law is a small example. Through it, Israel sprang forward. Let us hope this can serve as a model for resolving other more weighty instances of social, religious, ethnic and political conflict. • The writer is academic director, TIM-Tel Aviv.