Bring Sundays to Israel - comment

While incorporating Sunday into the Israeli weekend will not, in itself, cause religious tensions in Israel to dissipate, it will ease them significantly.

 A WOMAN enjoys the beach in Tel Aviv last month as a heat wave hit the country.  (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
A WOMAN enjoys the beach in Tel Aviv last month as a heat wave hit the country.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

Growing up, I never thought of my mother as being a particularly political person. As immigrants from the United States, she and my father busied themselves with helping me and my sisters adjust to life in a new country, developing careers in new professional environments, and putting down roots in the land. Who had time for politics?

But there was one issue that got her exercised and continues to do so to this day: the absence of Sundays in Israel.

“One day I’m going to start a political party and run for Knesset,” she would say. “My platform will consist of only one thing: bringing Sundays to Israel.”

My mother is far from alone. Many immigrants from Western countries long for the weekends they enjoyed in the places they left behind, which stretched from Friday afternoon until Monday morning and occasionally beyond, rather than Thursday evening until Sunday morning here in Israel.

This sense of longing is particularly acute among those who are traditionally observant, for whom Friday largely consists of preparations for Shabbat – all the more so in the winter, when sunset comes early – Saturday is spent fulfilling the religious obligations of the day, and before you know it, it’s Sunday morning and time to return to work and school.

An illustration of the Tel Aviv light rail Purple Line. (credit: NTA)
An illustration of the Tel Aviv light rail Purple Line. (credit: NTA)

Gone are the days when families could go to a sports game, spend time at the beach, visit a museum, attend a concert, enjoy nature, or do any of the myriad things families do on Sundays in the old country. While nonobservant families do many of those very things on Saturday, observant families largely sit on the sidelines, rushing to squeeze in a family activity Friday morning or a late-night movie Saturday night before it’s time to go back to the grind.

And what a grind it is. Israelis work more than citizens of almost any other developed nation; in 2022, they worked an average of 40.6 hours per week, making them the fifth hardest-working nation in the OECD, well above the overall average of 37.6 weekly hours. At the same time, Israelis earn far less than citizens of comparable countries – an average of $39,322 a year, well below the OECD average of $49,165.

Israelis are overworked, underpaid, confronted with a soaring consumer price index, stuck on clogged roads, battered by oppressive heat, and beset by constant crises and incessant bickering. Is it any wonder our nerves are frayed?

As the end of the summer draws near and Fridays become gradually shorter, now is the time to put Sundays on the national agenda.

There is every reason to this, and precious few arguments against it that hold water.

A poll commissioned last year by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein as part of his efforts to promote Shabbat observance found that an overwhelming 76% of Israelis support extending the weekend through Sunday and 83% believe doing so will reduce religious tensions in the country. Half of respondents who identified as secular said they would spend more time resting at home with family on Shabbat if the weekend were extended through Sunday.

Addressing the divisions in Israel wrought by Shabbat

Indeed, rather than serving as a source of national unity, Shabbat has become one of the most contentious issues in Israel, as highlighted by the debate surrounding this week’s launch of the first line of the Tel Aviv light rail network. The city’s longtime mayor, Ron Huldai, boycotted the grand opening of the line on Thursday in protest of Transportation Minister Miri Regev’s announcement that it will not operate on Shabbat.

“As someone who supports and promotes transportation on Shabbat, I have been saying for a long time – the light rail must operate and serve the public even on Shabbat,” he said. “That’s how it should be in a liberal and democratic country.”

While incorporating Sunday into the Israeli weekend will not, in itself, cause religious tensions in Israel to dissipate, it will ease them significantly.

Rather than feeling pressure to go out and engage in various activities on Saturday – or right before or after Shabbat, for those who are traditionally observant – families and individuals will have the option of dividing their weekends between rest and relaxation at home on Saturday and further-flung activities on Sunday, reducing (though not erasing) the need for public transportation on Shabbat.

Sports games, concerts, and other recreational events and activities that currently take place on Friday night and Saturday – excluding religiously observant Israelis and causing friction between the different segments of Israeli society – can be moved to Saturday night and Sunday, making them accessible to all.

Israelis will be better-rested, more connected to their families, and less prone to fighting over questions of synagogue and state. Sounds pretty good to me.

The primary argument against extending the weekend is, perhaps unsurprisingly, economic. More work hours generate greater productivity, the argument goes, leading to concerns that shortening the workweek could have a negative effect on Israel’s economy.

A recent pilot should put those fears to rest. In the largest such trial to date, 2,900 employees at 61 companies across the United Kingdom had their workweeks cut from five days to four for a period of six months in late 2022.

The results were striking. Not only did revenue not drop – it rose an average of 1.4% over the trial period and a whopping 35% compared to equivalent periods in previous years. Employees reported greater overall satisfaction, lower overall stress, and a far better work-life balance. Resignations plummeted by more than half. Of the companies that participated in the pilot – which ran the gamut from financial services firms to a fish-and-chips shop – 92% said they would extend the trial and 30% announced that the four-day workweek would now be permanent.

But one needn’t venture as far as the UK to see the effects of a reduced workweek in action. Closer to home, our newfound friends in the United Arab Emirates recently cut their workweek to 4.5 days and changed the weekend from Friday and Saturday to Friday afternoon through Sunday, bringing the country’s economy into alignment with international norms. The emirate of Sharjah went a step further, establishing a four-day workweek for public sector employees and schools and turning Friday through Sunday into an official three-day weekend.

Yet again, the results were remarkable. In Sharjah, employee productivity skyrocketed by 88% across government offices. Attendance jumped by 74% and sick days dropped by 46%. Employee satisfaction, job performance, and overall happiness rose by 90% or more. A study conducted in the Sharjah school system found an 80% improvement in students’ social interactions and an identical increase in staff motivation. Academic achievement improved by 7%. Oman is now considering following Sharjah’s lead and instituting a permanent three-day weekend; other Arab countries may follow suit.

A recent report in the MIT Sloan Management Review put it plainly: “The evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of a four-day workweek.”

The idea of extending the Israeli weekend through Sunday is not new. Former minister Silvan Shalom developed a plan to shift the weekend and have it start Friday afternoon and continue through Sunday, adding an hour to work Monday through Thursday to make up for the lost time; his proposal died when he was forced to resign amid charges of sexual misconduct in 2015. Several months later, in early 2016, a proposal emerged to grant Israelis one Sunday off per month; it was later reduced to six Sundays per year and then to four before disappearing altogether due to heavy pressure on the part of the Manufacturers’ Association and other interest groups.

But work habits have since changed and the post-pandemic workforce of 2023 is not the workforce of 2016. Employees have come to expect a healthier work-life balance and greater flexibility on the part of employers. While a half-day of work on Friday – as Shalom’s original plan proposed – may previously have seemed impractical due to employees’ commutes, in a reality in which working from home has become the norm for many, it may indeed be possible.

And yet, as the examples from the UK and UAE demonstrate, a half-day on Friday may not actually be necessary – a four-day workweek can evidently work just fine, boosting both productivity and employee happiness, alongside the societal advantages particular to Israel.

To be sure, shifting or expanding the Israeli weekend won’t happen overnight. The economy will have to be given time to adjust, unions will have to renegotiate employment agreements, and school calendars will have to be altered. But those aren’t insurmountable obstacles and the time to start putting these changes in motion through legislation is now.

In the coming weeks, we at the Post will explore this topic from several different angles in a series of articles by some of our top reporters and contributors. We will tackle the economic, political, religious, and social implications of extending the Israeli weekend through Sunday, presenting the key arguments in favor of such a move and against it. I encourage you to join the conversation.

At a time of great division in Israel, this is an issue on which a rare national consensus is possible. Extending the weekend will give Israelis a sorely needed breather, easing some of the tensions straining Israeli society and the difficulties of life in this challenging land while invigorating Israel’s economy. It will help restore Shabbat as a true day of rest and will offer an opportunity for Israelis of all walks of life to enjoy a day off together on Sunday. Perhaps most importantly, it will simply make Israelis happier.

The time has come. Let’s bring Sundays to Israel.