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Smotrich says Shabbat soccer games ‘disregard’ religious public, sparking backlash

MK attacks decision to move matches to earlier hours during winter, though this happens every year; opponents say comments portend restrictive policies he plans to enact

The Israeli Premier League match between Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Haifa at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Oren ben Hakoon/ Flash90)
The Israeli Premier League match between Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Haifa at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Oren ben Hakoon/ Flash90)

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich ignited controversy Monday after he expressed anger at a recent decision to schedule national soccer matches on Saturdays at earlier hours during the winter season, causing them to coincide with Shabbat.

“You have chosen to blatantly disregard a large audience of players, children and families,” Smotrich said in a letter to soccer officials.

“I welcome the desire to draw new audiences to the soccer fields, but in my view it’s very serious to disregard such a large group of the public,” Smotrich wrote.

The scheduling change by the Israeli Professional Football Leagues appeared to be in line with its past policies, with matches regularly being shifted to earlier hours after the end of Daylight Saving Time, to allow games to take place when it is warmer outside and there is more light.

Smotrich’s comments came days after the right-religious bloc of which he is a part won 64 seats in the general election and appeared set to form a new government, sparking fears among liberals that the expected incoming coalition will pursue an agenda of greater religious curbs in the public sphere.

His comments sparked an immediate backlash from outgoing coalition members, as well as others, who viewed them as part of a possible attempt to set a religious agenda, as his far-right party heads to a position of power.

Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the plenum hall during a memorial ceremony marking 27 years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Matches held on Shabbat have long been a cause of some discord between non-observant Israelis and the country’s ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist communities.

Judaism forbids performing certain activities on Shabbat — observed from Friday night to Saturday night — but soccer matches in Israel have historically been held during the holy day.

Smotrich sent a letter to Israeli Professional Football Leagues head Erez Kalfon, complaining that the new game times — designed to attract a larger crowd — will exclude people who keep Shabbat.

The lawmaker said it was “very unfortunate” that officials’ efforts to attract new crowds left out religious and traditional Israelis.

“The religious and traditional public in Israel takes a central part in all areas and activities. In recent years the gates were opened in culture and media, and it seems that only the soccer arena insists on keeping the gates closed to this public group,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate to see that, for you, new audiences do not include the fans that keep Shabbat and tradition in Israel,” Smotrich said.

Starting last Saturday, the soccer leagues scheduled games for the 2022/23 season to start at 3 p.m. on Saturdays during the winter season, as opposed to the 5:30 p.m. slot during Daylight Saving Time. In past years, games were also moved to 3 p.m. on Saturdays during winter.

Smotrich’s spokesperson said the lawmaker’s office had received a number of complaints over the move from people who observe Shabbat.

Soccer fans at a game between Beitar Jerusalem FC and Ashdod FC, at Teddy Stadium, in Jerusalem, on March 17, 2021. (Flash90)

Responding to Smotrich’s letter, the Israeli Professional Soccer Leagues said that the change of time was designed to accommodate children, women, and soldiers who “want to see soccer at comfortable hours and return home at a normal hour before a busy week.”

“Since before the establishment of the state, games were played in Israel on Shabbat,” the leagues said. “In the wintertime, when the temperature drops, we moved forward game times in order to allow for children and families to come to the soccer field as much as possible.”

The organizers emphasized that games are played on multiple days each week and that religious and secular people can choose to attend the matches that suit them.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, a right-wing, secular lawmaker, responded fiercely to Smotrich’s letter, warning that a “halachic state is just around the corner,” using the Hebrew term for Jewish law.

“Looks like Smotrich needs to give a kosher certificate to soccer games as well. I can only guess what the next step will be,” Liberman tweeted. “At this rate, World Cup games on Saturdays will have to be seen only in reruns.”

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli accused Smotrich of trying to force his religious lifestyle on citizens.

“I have news for you — soccer games will continue as normal, and if you dare to change this, the public will show you to the exit,” she said.

Social media was also rife with hot takes, both for and against Smotrich’s position.

Both Michaeli and Liberman are members of the current coalition, which is expected to be replaced in the coming weeks by a right-wing religious government, including Smotrich, and led by Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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