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Sunday, May 07, 2006

The right to shop vs. the right to rest

In a continuing effort to locate and firmly grasp the third rail of Israeli politics with both hands, treppenwitz is proud to present the following:

I was in Jerusalem stocking up on coffee shortly after the present cabinet had been announced (but hadn't yet been confirmed) when I overheard two women in the coffee shop loudly expressing their discontent over the prospect of Shas (a religious Sephardi party) taking over the 'Industry & Trade' portfolio which had previously been held by Shinui (a vehemently anti-religious party). 

The exchange went something like this (I'm quoting from memory):

Woman 1: Oh great... just wait and see.  The moment Shas has that 'Tik' (portfolio) we can all say goodbye to shopping on Shabbat (Saturdays)!

Woman 2:  Of course... and when do they expect us to be able to do our shopping?  The economy isn't bad enough that they need to force businesses to stay closed and turn away money... just to avoid offending a bunch of religious fanatics!  Next thing you know they'll start telling us how to dress.  I may as well go shopping for my Chador (an all-covering garment worn by some Muslim women) this weekend before all the stores are forced to close!

Clearly I'm not a real Israeli because I didn't jump into the discussion uninvited... and in fact, wasn't even able to formulate a proper mental response on the spot.  [Note to self: Keep a ready supply of opinions on hand for just such an occasion.]

Having grown up under the protective blanket of the 'separation of church and state', a part of me immediately sided with them that it was grossly unfair... even with almost half of the country being religious... that the religious beliefs of one group should interfere with the ability of another group to practice (or not practice) as they saw fit.

I went home feeling vaguely unsettled by the conversation I had overheard.  I was also angry at myself because, while I clearly had a dog in this fight, I couldn't seem to sort out who I wanted him to bite.

Then last night I read a well-written article on JPost that helped line up the issues for me.

What had tied my tongue was the sense of being part of a religious minority that seemed to be imposing its will on an unwilling non-observant majority.  For the sake of this discussion the whole 'majority/minority issue becomes less important as the two sides are almost equally matched these days (especially if one takes into account non-observant Israelis who have expressed support of maintaining the Shabbat status quo).  But even so, half the Israeli population shouldn't be able to impose its religious values on the other.

However, what really opened my eyes in this article was an essential factor that had been deliberately omitted from the loud discussion these women had been having.  The 1951 Israeli laws that established the delicate religious status quo, including the prohibition against Jewish stores conducting business on Shabbat, was not just a perk for the religious Jews and a slap at non-religious Jews.  It was designed so ALL Jews would be protected from being forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath... an untenable space between a rock and a hard place in which disaspora Jews had found it extremely difficult to find and keep a job.

Under less religious stewardship, the 'Industry & Trade' portfolio had deliberately turned a blind eye to more and more businesses staying open on Shabbat and reduced enforcement to virtually nil, which had resulted in more and more Jews having to chose between working on Saturday or losing their Job.  Oh sure, the business owners all offered an alternative day off during the week... but who wants Tuesday off if their kids are off from school on Saturday? 

As the JPost piece so aptly points out, the Supreme court has spoken definitively on challenges made by the pro-Saturday business lobby's attempts to offer a mid-week day off to any Jews forced to work on Shabbat by ruling unanimously that:

"...existing Shabbat legislation protects workers' rights and that only a universal day of rest, shared by all family members, can afford them one free day that all can spend together. Alternative time off will not achieve the same social aim."

The article goes on to point out that in a scenario where shabbat shopping was starting to become the norm, smaller family-owned mom & pop stores were forced to either work 7 days a week or face unfair competition from the big chains with larger work-forces.

Israel is slowly moving towards an official 5 day work week with more and more businesses closing on Friday in addition to the legally mandated Saturday.  While this is slightly out of sync with the rest of the world (when aren't Jews out of sync???), it does offer a reasonable alternative shopping day (Friday) that didn't exist in the previous 6 day work week scenario.

Examined with this information in mind, it is not the religious who are trying to impose their values on the non-religious, but in some respects, the other way around.  If one feels that no religious values should be protected, that is a legitimate platform... but it is a tad disingenuous to try to make it seem that it is the religious who are being dismissive of others' rights.

Once I'd absorbed the gist of the JPost article I started getting steamed about an underlying aspect of the conversation I had overheard in the coffee shop... namely that some evil appointed autocrat (even the JPost picture editor went out of his/her way to show a picture of the new Shas minister practically kissing Rav Ovadia's hand) was issuing religious edicts with the king's borrowed signet ring against the interests of the downtrodden populace.  This kind of blanket antipathy and suspicion that many non-religious people feel towards all things/people religious is horribly unfair. 

By stating his intention to begin enforce existing law supporting a continuation of a delicate status quo (note: he is not advocating anything that isn't already on the books and unanimously upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court), the new Minister of 'Industry & Trade' is upholding a basic right held by ALL Jewish Israelis; the right to have the same day off as everyone else in the country! 

It seems to me that something sorely lacking in all other aspects of our national life (a rare commonality) should be seen as a good thing.

Having experienced a sort of quasi-legitimacy in the US where my Sabbath never seemed to align with the plans of my school, office or non-Jewish / non-religious friends, I can see where this law might, in some small way, also offer the opportunity to place everyone on an equal social footing. 

Is that such a bad thing?

Go read the article... it deals with the issues much more thoroughly than I do in this (typically emotional) post.  Comment if you'd like... but PLEASE don't use unhelpful words or phrases to describe people on either side of this issue.  State your ideas in such a way that they stand on their own merits and do not rely on the reader's pre-existing prejudices.  Thank you.


Posted by David Bogner on May 7, 2006 | Permalink


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That's very interesting.

One can see how pro/anti religious views or separation of church and state can play a big role in this debate, BUT I like how the economical and family values issue also has a role. I know this may seem like a joke for Israeli politics, but can a compromise be reached that small business owners are protected by losing businesses to the competitors - like some sort of tax breaks or other incentives? It already seems that the Supreme court has laid down its position on forcing another individual take a different day off.

Also, do they have civil suits against an employers that refuses to hire someone if they are available for work anytime other than the Sabbath? I am thinking of someone who would work in the restaurant/bar business?

Posted by: jaime | May 7, 2006 5:44:51 PM

Personally, I was enraged by the JPost article -- the headline is a grossly misleading and sensationalized non-starter. I would be willing to bet that a large percentage of readers did not get to the point in the article where employee rights were discussed, but rather took the position that your coffee-shop ladies had that this is "what you get" when you have a religious voice in government. It is a shame that the issue of employee rights will take a back seat to the continuing tug of war between the fanatics on both sides of the religious/secular issues.

Posted by: zahava | May 7, 2006 8:22:55 PM

Actually I was wondering on a side note, do the other religious communities have similar protections, that is to say are the Muslims guaranteed Friday off and the Christians Sunday. Im just curious because I know Israel often allows its minorities to handle their own religious affairs like marriage etc ...

Posted by: Jonah | May 7, 2006 8:29:08 PM

The sad part is that this is one of the few laws that will actually be enforced in Israel. While the Shabbat law doesn't seem that offensive, it is really annoying that there will be so much emphasis on forcing people to close their stores on Shabbat, compared to forcing people not to dump their trash on the side walk, etc etc etc.

Posted by: Seth | May 7, 2006 9:04:32 PM

Hmm...employees' rights do appear to be an important issue. As long as the laws are uniform, and there are other days for secular pastimes, it's probably a good thing.

Posted by: Irina | May 8, 2006 12:06:04 AM

I did not read the jpost article yet but wanted to point out that what you heard these women talking about sounds like fear to me. Were they bringing up the current laws or were they just discussing their feelings? Sure, the reinforcement of no-shopping-on-shabbos will be an inconvenience but next thing they talk about is wearing a full body covering - they are just afraid of a more right-wing gov't. Afraid of change. Afraid of how that will translate for them in the long run. And you must admit, it can get pretty suffocating for women....

Now I will go read.

Posted by: FrumGirl | May 8, 2006 12:15:01 AM

Three observations:
1. The JPost article struck me as being actually less about the religious aspects and more about the social. It was almost a socialism vs. capitalism piece.

2. Funny how they use Druse inspectors to help enforce Jewish law amongst the Jews. Another spin on Shabbat goy.

3. It highlights one of the benefits of a country with various religious groups with different religious days. When I lived in Jerusalem, if I wanted to buy something on the Sabbath I would go to an Arab store (course the store would be small and sucky but that is a whole other issue) or to the old city. Druse off on Thursday, Muslims on Friday, Jews on Saturday and Christians on Sunday. Everyone is served. Perfect!

Posted by: lisoosh | May 8, 2006 12:47:59 AM

Years ago (in Israel), I was turned down for a job that I was eminently qualified for.

I still suspect the reason had to do with the potential employer asking me if I was prepared to work on Shabbat, and my answer was that if it were a situation of Pikuach Nefesh and my presence could directly save the life of someone, of course I would show up.

At the time I was a programmer, so I wasn't quite clear why I would need to be there on Shabbat, or much less, how exactly my incredible programming skills might save a life (particularly as this was a financial programming job), but I didn't think to ask that.

I was and am still shocked that in Israel I would be asked such a question.

I did end up working there for a different department, and never once did I have to come in on Shabbat to write some code to save someone's life. I was very disappointed.


I was listening to to a call up show on the radio last year, and the wife was complaining that her family is falling apart because they never get time together because his day off wasn't on Shabbat, but rather Tuesday, and she couldn't get her boss to give her Tuesday off instead.

One of the greatest gifts Judaism has given to the world is the concept of a day of rest. It freed society from the servitude of endless work.

Yet Israelis are so quick to throw away something so valuable, or at least make other people throw it away.

What a shame.

Posted by: JoeSettler | May 8, 2006 1:23:26 AM

I've never been employed in Israel, but I haave been told by a number of women that the very fact of dressing frum has caused them to lose job opportunities (mostly hi-tech, one medical) because while they were not ASKED if they would work on Shabbat it was clear from their style of dress that they would not....in one case the job went to a far less qualified secular Israeli simply because he was willing to work on Shabbat. To the extent that Shas levels the playing field and makes discrimination on the basis of Shabbat observance impossible, I'm for it. Jews in the US suffered for decades before the 7th Day Adventists (Christians who worship on Saturday) shoved through legislation making Satrudays a day off. I still have problems at work with the issue of working late on Fridays. If secular Israelis MUST have an entire day devoted to shopping, then lobby the Knesset to make Friday or Sunday a day off---or some other day. There is no reason for 40+% of the population to be coerced into working on Shabbat or suffer job discrimination because they won't.

Posted by: aliyah06 | May 8, 2006 4:37:14 AM

"The only people we hate more than the Romans, are the Judean People's Front. Splitters!"

Posted by: Doctor Bean | May 8, 2006 6:36:20 AM

One of the wonders of coalition politics, its all about party's interests and seldom about the people.

Posted by: pk | May 8, 2006 8:56:57 AM

I'd like to see Israel move towards a Saturday-Sunday weekend. If there was a real day off from work, when one could still shop, travel, see a movie, go out for brunch, etc., I think the pressure to ignore the Shabbat trading rules would dissipate.

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | May 8, 2006 9:43:32 AM

I was once shopping at a Superpharm on a Friday morning in the winter. The non-religious cashier asked me when candle-lighting time was, and I told her (around 5:00 at that time of year). She then complained bitterly to me that she had to work until 4:00 and she didn't know how she would get her cooking done by the 5:00 deadline. There are many Israelis who do not appear to be religious by their dress but who do want to keep Shabbos - and these laws are meant to protect them. Let's be honest - those of us who label ourselves religious will never take a job requiring breaking the Sabbath - but those who are traditional might - and that is a real shame.

Posted by: westbankmama | May 8, 2006 10:25:17 AM

Lioness hearts Dr Bean! That's my favourite of their movies.

Do you know, I think this is deeper than hat. I agree that a weekend is a must, i.e., all employees should have 2 days of rest. One or one and a half doesn't really seem like enough. But on Shabbat it's not just the stores, it's also, say, the busses. And in that sense it's not really abt the employees' rest, is it. You are forced to stay put if you don't have alternatives. There's no freedom in that.

Here in Portugal we have the weekend off, but Saturdays the stores are open, which means employees work shifts. Sundays until one big stores (what we call big surfaces, like Walmart. Wall Mart? Gah.) are allowed to be open but no longer than that bcs of small shops. Regardless, small shops are losing the trend battle, it's simply easier to shop where everything is gathered together. I don't see how they can win. And life goes on here as usual, the buses and the tube are running, and you can pretty much do everything you need to, and that, I believe, is the big differenceand what ultimately those women were referring to. I don't think they were talking only abt the stores closing, I think there is an ingrained fear that the lay population will increasingly NOT be able to choose bcs that option was taken away from them.

I think, though, there is a difference between working in a supermarket or a regular firm, for instance. Here people know that if they take a job in the former they will be required to regularly work on the weekend, bcs that's when most of the population has their days off.

The same way I feel that the religious ones should be given the freedom to keep Shabbat as they want to, I feel that non-religious people should be able to do what they want in their time off, without constraints. That goes far beyond the shopping, and even with social matters included, I think it is mostly a religious subjetc. The other aspect of it, the other shabbat restrictions, were not even mentioned, and they are a big part of why these women were afraid, I think.

And I have a humungous beef with things such as the Sabbos goy or the ma'alit Shabbat so I'll shut up now.

Posted by: Lioness | May 8, 2006 1:28:50 PM

Jaime... technically it is a criminal matter if an employer forces a Jew to work on Shabbat, but enforcement has been almost non-existent in recent years.

Zahava... Yeah sweetie, that bothered me as well, but the information was there if you read the whole thing. That's more than can be said for some papers I won't name here. :-)

Jonah... The other religions are self-regulating, if that's what you mean but I think that only the Jewish Sabbath is legally mandated. I could be wrong about that.

Seth... Don't get me started about not enforcing laws that are on the books. Smoking in public places like malls is something that drives me insane. And you can bet your last sheqel that the moment they start enforcing that law (assuming it ever happens) the smokers will point at some other law and say "But look at all these other statutes that aren't being enforced... why are you picking on us?" My point is that this is existing law that actually makes sense from a socio-economic point of view. It has been appealed and ruled upon by the Supreme court. It is not really helpful to say "...it is really annoying that there will be so much emphasis on forcing people to close their stores on Shabbat, compared to forcing people not to dump their trash on the side walk, etc." when it has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue under discussion.

Irina... Nowhere in the law does it say that people can't pursue secular pastimes (swimming, hiking, BBQs, etc.). It just says that no Jew can be forced to work in order for those pastimes to take place. Heck, in many states in the US if you are planning a Sunday picnic you had better pick up the beer (and in some places even the food) on Saturday or you'll be out of luck.

Frumgirl... Fear may have been an underlying factor, but hate of anything religious was really what was being broadcast loud and clear. To make the inductive leap from stores being closed on a particular day of the week (as is the case in many places in the US) to women being forced to wear a Chador is quite a reach, don't you think?

Lisoosh... 1) no argument. In many ways this is still very much a socialist country. 2) Druse are the perfect answer as they're sabbath doesn't bump up against ours and they have a long history of working with the Israeli government. 3)Before the Intifada most Israelis would feel comfortable shopping in Arab stores, riding Arab buses etc. It was a win-win situation for everyone. Who knows when those days will return.

Joe Settler... My very limited experience tells me that the vast majority of secular Israelis want to maintain a Jewish culture for the country, including some differentiation between Shabbat and the rest of the week. The ones who are the most vocal are a small minority of people who want to shed every shred of Jewishness and become more goyish than the goyim.

Aliyah06... I've heard such stories as well, and I take heart in the knowledge that it does not seem to be a very common occurrence. The nice thing is that the Israeli workplace is MUCH more family friendly for working moms that US. Employers seem to be much more in tune with the needs of family life than anything I ever saw in the states. So maybe there's a trade-off karma-wise. :-)

Doctor Bean... What made that movie so funny was the large grain of truth at the core of each joke. :-)

PK... Ya think??? :-)

Andy Levy-Stevenson... That isn't going to happen because the net result would be a 4.5 day work week since people would still need to leave early on Friday to prepare for Shabbat.

Westbankmama... I agree. So many of my secular friends keep some aspects of kashrut and shabbat/holidays without even thinking about it. I guess you only miss something when you suddenly can't have it. Sad.

Lioness... You're forgetting a couple of things... like who drives the buses? The truth is there are plenty of alternatives. 20 years ago cars were a relative luxury, but almost every Israeli family has at least one car these days (or access to one at least). As I said to another commenter, there is nothing stopping anyone from going on tiyulim or spending the day at the beach. The law simply addresses Jews being employed on shabbat... something that the courts have ruled would be counter to the social good of a common day off for everyone. In the old days before the Arabs shot their economy in the foot with the Intifadas, secular Jews used to shop in their stores on shabbat and ride their buses when the Jewish Bus lines stopped for shabbat. It was a perfect symbiosis... but these days nobody is going into Kalkilya or Hevron to find bargains.

Posted by: treppenwitz | May 8, 2006 2:23:33 PM

jeez david, I wasn't arguing, don't get so defensive. it was just something that came to mind when I was reading about how they are going to start really enforcing this.

Posted by: Seth | May 8, 2006 4:59:39 PM

I'm completely with you here, David.

A co-worker of mine once complained about this issue, and when I asked her about the right of people not to work on Shabbat, she replied: "What about my right to shop on Shabbat?"

For me it's a question of stronger vs. weaker economic sectors. The immigrants in the US a century ago had to work insane hours, including on Shabbat, for nothing more than meager subsistence. It took widespread strikes, rioting and sometimes even bloodshed for workers to get some rights, like the 40-hour week. We seem to be heading in that direction in some ways, and it's scary.

Posted by: Rahel | May 9, 2006 9:35:56 AM

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