Protect workers, and the majority’s desire to celebrate their own Shabbat

As we enter the eighth decade of Israel’s independence, we must find solutions for many issues related to religion and state

A MINI-MARKET in Jerusalem. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A MINI-MARKET in Jerusalem. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
One of the key questions that the Israeli media have been dealing with over the last few days concerns the true impact that the “mini-market law” initiated by the Interior Minister Arye Deri will actually have on the operation of businesses on Shabbat.
Many politicians who supported the law including even Haredi Knesset members are making a pronounced effort to explain that it will not dramatically change the present reality, and that the goal of the law was to send a message, principally in order to prevent further deterioration of the situation.
It is doubtful that these explanations can provide us any relief. The “mini-market law” that was passed in the Knesset because of pressure put on by the prime minister emphasizes what is negative and dangerous in the discourse on religion and state in Israel, and how time after time the government supports the most extreme elements who refuse any compromise.
A serious examination of the many studies that were publicized over the past years on working of Israelis on Shabbat teaches us that this is a serious social issue. According to statistics from the Economy Ministry, a fifth of Jewish workers are employed on the Sabbath. Despite the impression that these are mostly young people, 14% of the workers on Shabbat are parents of children under the age of 18.
These are not just workers in critical jobs such as emergency services or defense. A sixth of all workers in commerce work on Shabbat. These and other statistics show that tens of thousands of Israeli families are deprived of the basic right to a family day of rest, and this must be dealt with through legislation in the Knesset. But in order to implement this and not just create media headlines, there is a necessity to develop proportional arrangements that balance between the need to protect the rights of workers, and the need to respect the desire of the majority of Israelis to celebrate Shabbat according to their conscience and worldview without coercion.
In this manner, the municipal bylaw in Tel Aviv that led to the promulgation of the “mini-market law” in the Knesset represented thinking in the correct direction. The municipal bylaw approved two centers in the city in which commerce would be allowed, along with permits for operation of minimarkets. Limitations were included on the size of commerce areas, and the specific streets where stores could operate were defined. The Tel Aviv municipal bylaw presented a balanced approach that enabled on the one hand operation of food stores, and at the same time ensured that the clear majority of stores in commercial centers throughout the city would remain closed.
Another possible direction would be an idea presented by the Israel Reform Movement to gradually decrease commerce on Shabbat, along with an upgrade of the protection of the rights of workers in all branches of work on the Sabbath. According to this proposal, all commerce would be closed for 24 hours from Friday afternoon until Saturday afternoon, without any relationship to the specific time of the ending of the Sabbath from a halachic point of view.
Commerce would only be allowed in designated areas away from residential neighborhoods. This would enable a half day of commerce during the second half of the Sabbath in locations that would not disturb the tranquility of the population. The municipalities would be allowed to permit a limited number of minimarkets to function throughout the city during these hours, at a scope that would be based on the size of the population.
Businesses operating on Shabbat would be charged a special tax based on the physical size of the business and the number of workers. This tax would be used to set up a government fund to help small businesses and develop commerce in city centers. At the same time our proposal calls for upgrading social protections and rights of all workers on the day of rest, both in commerce and recreational activities. This would be achieved by limiting the work hours and consecutive Sabbaths that a worker is required to work, along with protecting the rights of workers who do not want to work at all on Shabbat.
The Tel Aviv municipal bylaw and the proposal of the Israel Reform Movement (that was included in a number of proposed laws by various members of Knesset on the issue of the Shabbat two years ago) represent an attempt to find a healthy and logical balance between the desire to retain the Sabbath as the official day of rest, and the understanding the 80% of the Jewish population do not follow Halacha in Shabbat observance.
In comparison to these proposals, the “minimarket law” that passed in the Knesset this week shows that headlines in the Haredi media are more important than dealing with a complex reality. This law does not solve the serious challenges that exist today regarding the work of hundreds of thousands of Israelis on Shabbat. Other than giving political and media profit to Minister Deri, and political quiet for a few more weeks to the prime minister, the law does not promote the sanctity of Shabbat at all in the Israeli public, and does not provide any protection for the workers who are compelled to work on Shabbat.
In Israel’s present political reality in which the Haredi parties have disproportional strength, it is impossible to reach solutions that involve compromise. The issue of commerce on Shabbat is a conspicuous example, as was the disturbing and sad fiasco around the Western Wall compromise. The weakness of the prime minister vis-à-vis his Haredi partners in the case of the Western Wall caused the extreme elements on the Haredi street to pressure their representatives in the Knesset not to compromise and to take even more extreme stands on all issues of religion and state.
The Haredi politicians are paying the price, the prime minister is paying the price, and even worse than that, the entire public is paying the price. Instead of supporting compromise and balanced arrangements, the government chooses time after time to grant victory prizes to the most extreme forces. In this reality, it is difficult to promote Israel’s image as a Jewish and democratic society that can strike a harmonious balance among its core values and among the various “tribes” living here.
As we enter the eighth decade of Israel’s independence, we must find solutions for many issues related to religion and state. Solving these issues by definition demand reaching compromises. The Haredi political parties have shown that they are not partners to any compromise. In the coming years, a broad movement of citizens must arise to call on all the Zionist political parties to enter a special ad hoc government coalition to reach agreements and arrangements on these issues.
The Haredim will not be part of this government coalition, but it would not be justified to take advantage of this situation to reduce budgets for yeshivot or to take any steps that directly hurt the Haredi community.
The focus must be on reaching basic arrangements on all issues of religion and state, after which we can return to the complex familiar routine of politics as usual. It sounds unrealistic right now but it can be done. The decisive majority of Israeli citizens knows the status quo is dead and that now is the time for a new Israeli covenant on issues of religion and state.
The writer is CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.