Reality Check: This is no theocracy

Eli Yishai seems determined to antagonize secular Israelis and drive them away from tradition.

Eli Yishai (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Eli Yishai
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Even for the non-religious among us, there is always something special about Yom Kippur and this year was no different. In Mevaseret Zion where I live, the town took on a village atmosphere as parents congregated after Kol Nidre to mingle and watch their young children on their bikes enjoy the freedom of the main road and the cooler weather.
Of course, not everybody goes to synagogue, perhaps not even the majority, but nobody here drives during Yom Kippur and not even the most ardent secularist or heaviest smoker would be seen smoking outside in public during the 25 hours of the fast, to say nothing of actually eating in public. And what makes this special atmosphere all the more precious is the fact that this behavior is voluntary, springing from a communal desire to respect the holiest day in Judaism’s calendar and those who observe its religious strictures.
Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri used to say it was fortunate there was no law requiring circumcision, since if there were far fewer parents would have their infant sons circumcised. In this, he was absolutely right: Israelis, in the main, still feel an affinity to Jewish tradition, providing that religious observance is not forced upon them.
This is backed out by the results of a Central Bureau of Statistics survey released last week detailing Israelis’ selfdefinition of their religious identity. According to the poll, 42 percent of the Jewish population characterize themselves as secular, while 8% of define themselves as haredi, 12% as religious, 13% as traditional-religious and 25% as traditional but “not very religious.”
But drilling down into the figures, one sees that “secular” is a very loose concept. Of the 42% who define themselves as secular, almost a quarter nevertheless reported that they had attended synagogue on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur or both, just over a quarter said they had fasted on Yom Kippur and the vast majority, 82%, regularly conduct a Seder.
UNFORTUNATELY, DERI’S successor, Interior Minister Eli Yishai seems determined to antagonize these secular Israelis and drive them away from tradition.
His recent decision to disable the ministry’s online payment service so that people will no longer be able to make payments to the ministry over the Internet on Shabbat or Jewish festivals is the height of high-handedness.
Given that such a service is automatic, with no need for ministry personnel to be working, there is no reason to deprive people of the ability to make their payments at a time of their own convenience. At present, only 3.2% of online payments made via government websites overall take place on Shabbat or holidays, but this more than doubles at the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority website, where online payments on these days account for 7% of all payments.
By disabling the system, Yishai is effectively attempting to dictate how people behave in the privacy of their homes during their leisure hours.
Depressingly, but not surprisingly, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman from United Torah Judaism was quick to jump on this bandwagon of religious coercion and announced that online payments to the Health Ministry would also be blocked on Shabbat and the holidays. Amazingly, Litzman didn’t even bother to check first whether his ministry’s website offered such a service, he simply declared: “If such a service exists, it must be closed on Shabbat and holidays.”
And if it wasn’t bad enough that these haredi ministers are attempting to force their religious lifestyle on others, their arrogant behavior also totally ignores the fact that one-fifth of the country’s citizens are not even Jewish.
Even if one could tolerate Yishai’s determination to enforce, wherever possible, Shabbat observance on a fellow Jew, why on earth should a resident of Kafr Yasif in Galilee be prevented from making a payment via the Internet to the Interior Ministry on a Saturday? This shameless attempt by an extremist minority to invade the personal space of the rest of the country must be firmly and quickly repelled.
WHEN HE was sworn as a minister in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ludicrously oversized government, Michael Eitan joked that he had no idea as to the purpose of his newly created portfolio: the improvement of government services. Eitan now knows that his job is no laughing matter.
It is incumbent upon Eitan to make sure that government ministries are prevented from taking unilateral steps that harm the quality of life of us all. An automatic Internet service at a government ministry does not force anyone to desecrate the Shabbat.
Those who wish to avail themselves of this service in their own home during the hours of Shabbat or even Yom Kippur should be free to do so.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.