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Enforcement of Shabbat laws is lax and decreasing every year

Israel’s official rules limiting Shabbat activity increasingly ignored — research

Though 70% of Jewish local authorities ban cultural sites from opening on day of rest, 58% of such centers and 82% of museums operate; over a quarter of shopping malls also open

A Shabbat minibus drives through central Tel Aviv on November 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
A Shabbat minibus drives through central Tel Aviv on November 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Israel is increasingly seeing significant gaps between regulations limiting certain activities on Shabbat and the reality in the Jewish state, according to an Israel Democracy Institute report published Tuesday.

The document was the first IDI Statistical Report on Religion and State in Israel.

Editors wrote that the report “reveals the immense gaps between the laws and regulations regulating the balance of religion in Israel as they are written, and the reality actually taking place on the ground in Israeli cities and towns.”

Regarding Shabbat, “while there are both national and local laws limiting public certain activities” the IDI found that “actions on the ground are dictating reality.”

The report found that 98% of cinemas and 82% of established museums operate on Shabbat, along with 52% of cultural centers and theaters and 26% of shopping malls. That amounts to 42 cinemas; 45 museums; 46 cultural centers and theaters; and 62 malls and shopping centers.

The figures show an increase since 2015, when 65% of museums and 46% of cultural centers and theaters were open on Shabbat. Shopping malls went up from 20% during the same period, while the percentage of cinemas has remained the same.

Days before Jerusalem’s Cinema City opens, a look at the front facade of the building. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among Jewish local authorities, 74% allow the sale of food on Shabbat under certain conditions, 7% have no restrictions, and 4% allow vendors to obtain a permit to sell food. Another 15% of authorities have a complete ban on food sales on Shabbat.

Commercial businesses are banned from opening on Shabbat in 89% of Jewish authorities, 8.5% allow for obtaining a special permit, and 2.5% do not restrict commercial activity.

In the cultural sector, 70% of Jewish authorities forbid institutions to operate, though 19% permit it. A further 5.5% grant special permits for operation and 5.5% permit free activities to be held.

“Today, most cultural institutions are open on Shabbat, even in Jerusalem with its large religious population,” the authors said. “In the central region, a de-facto public transportation system runs uninterrupted every weekend.”

Of the 2,913 active bus lines in the country, 284 (10%) run on Shabbat. Among those, 210 operate frequently and 74 run only shortly after the start of Shabbat and shortly before it ends.

Thirteen percent of bus lines operating on Shabbat run through Jewish municipalities, with the majority active in Arab or mixed community cities.

Across the country, enforcement of Shabbat laws is “uniformly lax and continues to decrease with each passing year,” the authors noted.

They found “a noticeable decrease” in the enforcement of Shabbat laws by the Economy Ministry. In 2018, 360 files were opened for Shabbat law violations by businesses, compared to just 89 in 2021. During the same period, the number of warnings given dropped from 168 to 41.

The report also probed Jewish Israeli opinions on Jewish identity and conversion.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai poses for a photograph at a launch event for new public transportation buses, November 20, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Regarding Jewish identity, the survey found that 70% of Jewish Israelis do not accept patrilineal descent and, as a result, do not consider those born of a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother to be Jewish. Just 26% said they do accept patrilineal descent and the remaining 4% said they didn’t know.

Data showed that although secular segments of the public are more likely to accept patrilineal descent, half of non-religious Israelis still do not see fathers as able to pass on Jewish lineage.

Regarding conversion, 44% of respondents do not accept as Jews those who underwent a non-Orthodox conversion, while 40% do. The remaining 16% said they don’t know.

Among secular Jews, a clear majority of 67% accept non-Orthodox conversion compared to 18% who don’t.

Excluding the ultra-Orthodox, 69% of Israeli Jews trust conversions by the Israel Defense Forces. Among ultra-Orthodox, just 6% recognize IDF conversions. The army offers a conversion program to cater to thousands of immigrants and their descendants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized by the state as Jewish, but are Israeli citizens and so are called up for national service.

Recognition as being Jewish is also necessary for marriage, which is controlled by the state-operated Chief Rabbinate. Civil marriage is not possible in Israel.

Concerning trust in religious institutes, the Chevra Kadisha burial society ranked highest with 45%, followed by local municipal rabbis with 38%. The Chief Rabbinate has the trust of just 34% and the Religious Affairs Ministry 24%.

The survey was compiled based on “existing data, detailed surveys and research conducted ‘in the field,'” the IDI said.

The polling sampled 1,016 men and women who were interviewed in Hebrew and 214 in Arabic, over the phone or via the internet in August 2022.

The IDI said it plans biennial religion and state reports, which will provide “an overview of the latest data, trends and changes affecting the delicate balance between religion and state in Israeli society.”

“It is our hope that this report will enable basing policy decisions on fact rather than feeling and affiliation,” the authors wrote.

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