Open on Shabbat: Israel’s fray of rest
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AnalysisAlmost a fifth of the Israeli workforce works on Shabbat, largely without the necessary permissions

Open on Shabbat: Israel’s fray of rest

Cities are riding roughshod over the bylaws that are designed to protect the special nature of sabbath in the world’s only Jewish state, prompting concerns over discrimination, selective enforcement, and an eroding national identity

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Israelis at a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, on Saturday, November 01, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis at a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, on Saturday, November 01, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On the corner of Jerusalem’s Hillel Street, there is a grocery store that has no door.

Pointing at the window blinds and glass that take up the better part of the entrance, an employee at the 24/7 convenience store nonchalantly explains that on Yom Kippur, the only day (and night) the store closes its doors, they hire a guard. Why get a door for just one day a year? he says with a shrug.

These days, the doorless market is feeling the heat from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, as the municipality moves to crack down on shops that operate on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest. But the store worker says that even if the municipality begins penalizing them for working on Shabbat, they’ll pay the fines and remain open anyway.

As exemplified by Barkat’s current effort, the “Shabbat wars” in Israel — whether over Tel Aviv supermarkets, or ex-economy minister Aryeh Deri’s efforts to halt Israel Railways’ line construction work on Shabbat, which is still pending a decision — crop up time and again, in a cycle of sudden and selective enforcement, public backlash, and petitions to the High Court.

The cases are often marked by a discrepancy between the law and a long-standing tradition of non-enforcement. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein in September underlined the tension as he weighed in on a spat between the courts, the Economy Ministry, and soccer leagues playing on Saturdays. “From time immemorial, soccer matches of the various leagues were held on Shabbat, without issuing special permits on the matter,” said Weinstein. “At the same time, a policy of non-enforcement has been pursued and in this way, the status quo on matters of religion and state was preserved for decades. Taking criminal action over a game on Shabbat, after nothing has been done for decades, doesn’t make sense to me.”

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, May 17, 2015. (Dudi Vaknin/Pool)
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, May 17, 2015. (Dudi Vaknin/Pool)

And while the contentious question of the Jewish day of rest in Israel is often framed as a purely religion-state issue, the various cases highlight the struggle between Israel’s social and economic considerations. They also underline a constant tug of war between Israel’s legislature, judiciary, and local councils. Tasked with enforcing the closure of businesses, the councils, more often than not, simply don’t.

A policy of non-enforcement?

As part of the labor laws governing Shabbat, cities and regional councils are given the option of drafting bylaws regulating which businesses may remain open on the Jewish day of rest, and have the jurisdiction to penalize those that violate the municipal laws with modest fines. (Some cafes and place of entertainment are exempt.) In practice, however, most local authorities do not appear to enforce these bylaws, many of which have not been updated in over 40 years.

A 2014 Knesset study of 25 of Israel’s largest cities and 10 regional councils found that the vast majority (92 percent) of cities have bylaws on the books with regards to Shabbat, while most regional councils (80%) do not. (The two cities that do not have their own bylaws — Elad and Modiin Illit — are ultra-Orthodox cities which maintained it was not necessary since most residents were Shabbat observant.)

Most (64%) of the local laws were drafted before the 1970s, and all prohibit businesses from operating on the day of rest, with the exception of some cafes and restaurants (in 80% of cities), and some entertainment centers (in 40%). Some 21 out of the 25 areas that have Shabbat bylaws levy fines on businesses that violate the laws — 15 of them charge NIS 730 ($190), five NIS 475 ($125), and one NIS 320 ($80).

However, over half (13 out of 25) of the local authorities with bylaws said “they do not enforce the bylaws for various reasons,” the study said. Six of those that do not enforce it did not provide an explanation. Meanwhile, Beit Shemesh said the law, drafted in 1959, was “archaic” and said “even if it was interested [in enforcing the law], it wouldn’t be possible to do so.” Eilat said the law “is not suited to the touristic character of the city,” Lod said the laws are not enforced “due to the complexity of the city,” which has a sizable Arab population, and Herzliya and Hod Hasharon said “there was no need to enforce the law since the city maintains a status quo under which small businesses, most of them food establishments, open in the city center.” Ultra-Orthodox cities Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit said “there was no need for enforcement, due to its Haredi character.” Apart from these 13, five other cities — Beersheba, Haifa, Petah Tikva, Ramat Hasharon and Rishon Lezion — said they only enforced the law in residential areas.

Moreover, of the 35 local authorities who responded to the survey, 15 (43%) wrote “that they do not have any information about the number of businesses open [on Shabbat] under their jurisdiction, or did not respond to this question at all.”

The study noted that another 17 cities and regional councils simply did not respond to the survey, and that the self-reported data was not independently verified. Among those that did not respond: Jerusalem.

Israelis at a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, on Saturday, November 01, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israelis at a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, on Saturday, November 01, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Economic Ministry: permits and prohibitions

Separate from the municipality bylaws, businesses seeking to have employees work on Shabbat (with the exception of cafes, hotels and the like, which are automatically exempted) must seek a special permit from the Economy Ministry.

According to figures released by the ministry last year, some 400 companies receive a permit after proving that closing their companies on Shabbat would significantly harm their business, Israeli security, or the Israeli economy. Under Deri, the ministry determined that public companies must also seek the approval of the relevant minister (in the Israel Railways case, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz) a move that is still tied up in the High Court. The ministry said in a statement that companies that employ workers without a permit can be hit with a NIS 35,740 fine per each worker or violation or face criminal prosecution. (How frequently the ministry pursues legal action against these companies in practice remains unclear).

But according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s vice president of research Prof. Yedidia Stern, some 17 percent of the Israeli workforce does work on Shabbat, and much of the commercial activity does not have Economy Ministry approval.

“In reality, and there is a discrepancy here, in reality, we know that many other shops, malls and even factories do work on Shabbat without [Economy Ministry] permission — either because they don’t bother to ask for permission, or because they know that if they ask for permission, there is no justification for it,” Stern said.

Stern points out that “there is no Shabbat law in Israel,” as is commonly believed. Rather, the 1951 “Hours of Work and Rest Law” generally outlines Israel’s labor policies, which includes the stipulation that Jewish workers should not work on Saturday, while Muslim and Christian workers must have Fridays or Sundays off.

Stern, however, said the legal aspect “is not the main issue,” and should not, in his opinion, be challenged.

“Shabbat is much more than religion. I think the main issue is not whether the law is kept or not. This is important, but it does not give you the depth of the issue — the depth of the issue is: If we are a Jewish state, what does that really mean?”

Why it matters

With little regulation of businesses operating on Shabbat, and the occasional and inconsistent invoking of these laws by public officials frustrating the public, some critics have also raised concerns the lack of oversight harms poorer workers, who are the ones compelled to work on the day of rest, or adversely affects the Shabbat-observant. Conversely, the Shabbat restrictions are seen as undermining religious freedom in Israel and equally discriminatory against those willing to work on Shabbat.

In a shift from the general debate about Shabbat and religious freedom in Israel, a Channel 2 exposé in August revealed that dozens of people were turned down for jobs after they said they could not work on Shabbat, and on October 12, a Knesset committee meeting tackled the alleged discrimination against both the Shabbat observant and the poor.

“Most of the people who work on Shabbat are poor and don’t have a choice; most of them make minimum wage or less,” said MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union) at the meeting. “Unfortunately, the phenomenon is only growing.”

Committee chair Yisrael Eichler of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party instructed the Economy Ministry to file a report on the discrimination against Shabbat-observant workers within a month, and said the committee would consider amending the law with a non-discrimination clause.

Hiddush founder Rabbi Uri Regev (courtesy)
Hiddush founder Rabbi Uri Regev (courtesy)

Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of the Hiddush NGO that promotes religious pluralism, said Hiddush successfully defended a man who was refused a job at a hi-tech firm over his Shabbat observance several years ago, but added that not permitting students, for example, from earning some extra money on their only day off was also problematic.

“We should not be allowing employees to be discriminated against because they are observant but on the other hand, we shouldn’t be enforcing Shabbat on people who don’t feel they are religiously bound,” he said.

He said the debate over Shabbat “is a debate over religion and state. That should not be the scope of the debate.” The labor issues are “really the core of the discourse that has not been fully spelled out,” he said.

“Of course, we need to make sure that the desire to provide r&r, recreational activities, cultural activities, food services on Shabbat does not come at the expense of people who are going to be exploited,” Regev said.

Hiddush is “not in favor of turning Shabbat into a regular work day. It’s a matter of striking the right balance. The notion of a rest day is as important religiously as it is socially and morally. A healthy society has to provide rest,” he said.

For Stern, the religion-national identity-labor issues that Shabbat raises are all intertwined.

“Shabbat should be a different day, and it is to a large degree,” he said, adding that he personally maintains that cafes, restaurants and entertainment centers should be open, and limited public transportation be offered. “But we see that market forces in Israel, as they do in the rest of the world, push people to work on Shabbat. Because if you open your shop, and the rest of the shops are closed, you have a better chance to make money — so market forces tell you, give up your Shabbat and go to work. But according to this logic, everyone would go to work, which is what we are starting to see here. We are basically losing the special character of this day, and therefore are diluting the Jewish character of the state itself.”

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