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Culture minister aims to nix Shabbat events set up by predecessor; PM shuts him down

Zohar targets initiative offering municipalities subsidized weekend events; Netanyahu intervenes, concluding ministry will continue funding but won’t initiate new Shabbat events

Incoming Culture Minister Miki Zohar (R) with his predecessor Chili Tropper at a handover ceremony in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Incoming Culture Minister Miki Zohar (R) with his predecessor Chili Tropper at a handover ceremony in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Culture Ministry directed municipalities in periphery towns on Sunday to cease holding events during Shabbat that had been part of an initiative launched in 2021 by the previous culture minister, but then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened on Monday and reversed the order.

Chili Tropper’s Israeli Shabbat initiative saw the opening hours of museums and heritage sites extended into the weekend in periphery towns, offering residents free or highly subsidized events. The initiative took place on Fridays and Saturdays, with municipalities able to choose whether or not to hold them on the Jewish Sabbath based on their residents’ level of religiosity.

Last week, though, cultural coordinators in periphery towns received a notice from the Culture Ministry warning them not to hold such events from 5 p.m. on Fridays until an hour after sundown on Saturdays, the Haaretz daily reported on Sunday.

The directive shocked several towns where most of the residents are secular, with one municipal official telling Haaretz that former culture minister Tropper’s initiative had been extremely popular because the events were heavily subsidized.

“If they want to make culture accessible to the residents of the periphery, it’s a shame that they’re choosing to do it by fiat and not through cooperation based on the [religious makeup] of each municipality,” another local official said.

New Culture Minister Miki Zohar confirmed the decision, tweeting Sunday that he would not allow Shabbat-observant Israelis to be “discriminated against” on his watch.

Incoming Culture Minister Miki Zohar (R) with his predecessor Chili Tropper at a handover ceremony in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zohar added that by including events that take place on the Sabbath, Tropper’s initiative violated the status quo barring most public events on the Jewish day of rest. However, Zohar’s interpretation of the status quo is not accepted by critics, who say that municipalities whose residents are secular should be allowed to hold events on Shabbat.

The minister said he had instructed his office to review all projects implemented by his predecessor, including the Israeli Shabbat initiative.

He clarified, though, that privately funded events on Shabbat would be allowed to continue and that museums funded by sources other than the Culture Ministry would be allowed to remain open on Saturdays as well.

Tropper said Zohar’s decision was “cause for concern,” noting that his own initiative “allows anyone and everyone to enjoy cultural events and connect with their heritage without financial hindrance and each according to their faith.” He also noted that a special budget had been allocated for arrangements that allowed Shabbat-observant Israelis to attend such events without violating their religious practices.

Tropper is now an opposition MK for the National Unity party.

Zohar pushed back against the criticism in a series of tweets Monday morning, calling it “media spin” and saying he had “never said or considered canceling events or revoking funding for cultural institutions that operate on Shabbat.”

Pledging to stick to the status quo as it existed before Tropper’s term, Zohar said his ministry would continue to fund many events on Shabbat, but would not actively initiate cultural events taking place on the Jewish day of rest.

Within the coalition, Zohar received some praise for the move.

United Torah Judaism chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf issued a statement hailing Zohar’s “ethical” decision as “embodying the essence of the [religion-state] status quo and the Jewish character of the country.”

On Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Culture Ministry said in a joint statement that Netanyahu had spoken with Zohar and “made it clear that all activities held on Shabbat by the various bodies funded by the ministry will continue normally” — apparently including Israeli Shabbat initiative events.

The statement added that Zohar “asked for the initiative for the activities to come from the funded bodies and not from the ministry, without harming the funding itself or the content of the activity.”

In a subsequent “clarification statement,” Zohar insisted that he wasn’t told to change course regarding the Shabbat initiative events, and that “the supported bodies will continue getting funding from the ministry and operating in accordance with the status quo.”

He added: “The only change is that the ministry won’t initiate activities on Shabbat but will continue funding them vis-a-vis the initiating entities. I have no intention to intervene in the content, besides, of course, content that harms IDF soldiers, the State of Israel and its symbols.”

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