AP — The forecast for Israel on Sunday: balmy late-summer temperatures, uncomfortable humidity along the Mediterranean coast and … darkness at 6 p.m.?
Israel moves its clocks back by an hour overnight, putting the country on its winter clock more than a month ahead of Europe and the US and adding to the rising anger that many mainstream Israelis feel toward an ultra-Orthodox minority.
Many Israelis believe the time change, meant to make it easier to fast on the upcoming Yom Kippur holy day, unnecessarily disrupts life and costs the economy millions of dollars. They say the early onset of darkness raises electricity costs, causes more car accidents and gives children less time to play after school.
While the custom has long bred resentment, the premature arrival of winter hours comes at an especially sensitive time, given the rising backlash against what is widely seen as religious coercion by ultra-Orthodox leaders.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s just a power play by the ultra-Orthodox to show who’s in charge. There is no reason for it being this early,” said Raanan Lidji, a 34-year-old high-tech worker from Tel Aviv.
The move to winter time ahead of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest date on the Jewish calendar, has been standard practice for decades and enshrined in law since 2005.
Yom Kippur, which begins on Tuesday evening, is marked by a sundown-to-sundown fast. Orthodox religious parties, which have always held key swing votes in Israel’s political system, are behind the time change, wanting to decrease the number of waking hours for those fasting.
Although the length of the fast doesn’t change, the sun sets an hour earlier with the winter clock, shortening the more difficult end of the fast. In a similar custom, neighboring Muslim countries sometimes adjust their clocks, even in the middle of summer, during Ramadan to make the monthlong fasting period easier to manage. But the clocks are returned to summer time after Ramadan ends.
In Israel, the seemingly premature clock change elicits complaints every year from secular and modern Orthodox Israelis, who make up some 90 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. But this year, the anger has been heightened by a variety of factors.
Yom Kippur, which falls on a different date each year based on the Jewish calendar, arrives relatively early this year, making the change all the more noticeable.
It also comes against the backdrop of rising tensions between the secular masses and the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox minority. Much of the anger is being directed at Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose ultra-Orthodox Shas Party has played a key role in shaping the law.
Yishai has resisted repeated calls to push back the change. In 2010, when it came even earlier in September, nearly 400,000 people signed a petition urging him to change the system.
Following the outcry, Yishai appointed a committee to study the matter. But its recommendation that the summer clock remain in effect until early October was never implemented.
“He simply wants to build up the special form of regime to be found in Israel — a religious ‘minocracy,’ Not a democracy that represents the majority and takes the minority into account, but rather a minority that controls the majority and does not care a damn about it,” wrote Nehemia Shtrasler, an economics affairs columnist at the Haaretz daily.
A spokesman from the Shas party did not immediately return messages seeking comment. A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also had no immediate comment.
Ultra-Orthodox parties such as Shas, while representing less than 10 percent of the general population, have long served as kingmakers in Israel’s fragmented political system.
With this power, rabbinical authorities control the rules for marriages, divorces and burials, and ultra-Orthodox males have long received exemptions from compulsory military service in order to pursue religious studies.
Ultra-Orthodox men often continue their studies well into adulthood, living off welfare subsidies as their secular counterparts work and pay taxes.
The draft exemptions and study subsidies have become a central issue in Israeli politics. Early this year, the Supreme Court ruled the exemptions illegal and ordered the government to change the law.
But attempts in parliament to reform the nation’s draft law deadlocked, causing one of Netanyahu’s coalition partners to quit, and the government missed a deadline to draw up new legislation. With religious leaders saying they will resist any change to the old arrangement, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is currently struggling to figure out a new draft system.
Adding to the tensions, extremist sects within the ultra-Orthodox community have come under fire in recent months for attempts to ban the mixing of sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces. In Jerusalem, advertisements depicting women have been removed from billboards and buses because of fears that extremists will vandalize them.
These attempts at coercion have fueled a brewing cultural clash between two Israels. On one hand, the country continues to be a high-tech powerhouse with liberal values that have turned Tel Aviv into a gay mecca. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox, with their high birthrates, have grown increasingly outspoken and assertive.
With Netanyahu expected to call early parliamentary elections in the coming months, the country’s opposition is likely to use the controversies over the draft and religious coercion against him.
“Israel is proving once again that it is living in the dark,” said Ronit Tirosh, a lawmaker from the opposition Kadima Party.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.