Will this ultra-Orthodox minister bend Shabbat rules like Beckham?

All soccer in Israel will come to a halt, Football Association threatens, unless Aryeh Deri allows one league to play on the Sabbath

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Economy Minister Aryeh Deri. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Economy Minister Aryeh Deri. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When Israel’s Sports Channel offered the country’s second-highest soccer league a chance to be on TV, no one thought it would turn into a religious war.

Israel’s National Soccer League is a poor relative of the Premier League, whose players compete abroad and earn six-figure salaries. National League teams, such as Hapoel Katamon, are often composed of soldiers and students along with professional athletes who eke out a modest salary and seldom get stopped for autographs.

But earlier this year, the Sports Channel decided to air National League games on TV—provided the games were played on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which lasts from sunset on Friday till nightfall on Saturday.

What happened next was a series of events that, in the words of the spokesman for the Israel Football Association, could “end soccer in the State of Israel.”

Shlomi Barzel (Photo: Facebook)

Shlomi Barzel, spokesman for the Israel Football Association, an organization that represents club management, describes what happened.

“Channel 5 had a free air spot because they lost the right to air the Spanish League. We thought, let’s play on Shabbat because then we can broadcast it. It would mean more money for the national league, more exposure and more sponsors, because if you’re on TV, sponsors like it.”

“Everyone thought it was a good idea but then it turned out that the soccer players, who had joined the Histadrut workers’ union eight months ago, said, ‘You’re changing the rules on us. We don’t want to play on Shabbat.’ It was a week before the opening of the season and their union said they won’t do it. Some of them claimed that the reason they chose to play in the national league is because there are no games on Saturday. I don’t buy it. They’re in the national league because they’re not good enough for the premier league.”

Neither side would budge. Club managers insisted that the teams play on Shabbat, while players, some religiously observant and others not, refused.

The Maccabi Petah Tikva youth soccer team (YouTube screenshot)
The Maccabi Petah Tikva youth soccer team (YouTube screenshot)

On August 17, the New Israel Football Players Association (representing players) sent a letter to the Israel Professional Football League (representing managers) demanding that it change the schedule immediately or face a lawsuit. The letter claimed that requiring players to play on the Sabbath violated Israel’s Work and Rest Hours law, a largely ignored 1951 piece of legislation that prohibits workers from working on Shabbat without a special dispensation from the economy minister.

On August 20, a Labor Court judge told the football league, “You don’t have permission to work on the Sabbath. You’re breaking the law. Ask the economy minister for permission. If you don’t get permission, I won’t give it to you and I won’t condone a criminal act.”

Barzel, the Football Association spokesman, told The Times of Israel. “So we’re going to drop a bomb. Unless we get permission in the next week, we’re going to stop all soccer games in Israel.”

All soccer?

“If the minister doesn’t give permission to play on Shabbat, soccer will stop. From the professional level to kid’s leagues, there will be no more soccer in Israel.”

And just who is the economy minister who holds the fate of Israeli soccer in his hands?

The head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Knesset member Aryeh Deri.

Will Deri allow soccer on Shabbat?

“It’s obvious Aryeh Deri will never sign a release to allow work on Shabbat,” says Kim Melchior, a member of the board of directors of Hapoel Katamon, a Jerusalem-based national league team. “There is no chance.”

Melchior, who describes himself as religiously observant, says that historically the National League did not play games on the Sabbath — for the most part.

“In the lower leagues, they always made sure games were not on Shabbat. For instance, in the national league, there were always five games on Friday afternoon and three on Monday night. Some of these Friday games occasionally continued into Shabbat.”

Israel's first fan-owned team, Hapoel Katamon, celebrating a win (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Israel’s first fan-owned team, Hapoel Katamon, celebrating a win (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Melchior says that Hapoel Katamon has had a few religiously observant players over the years, and the team always made sure they had a place to sleep near the field on Fridays so they wouldn’t have to violate the Sabbath by traveling home.

But earlier this year, when the Sabbath issue came up, Hapoel Katamon offered a compromise, suggesting that the games on Friday be broadcast earlier and that once every eight weeks the team would play a game in the middle of the day on Saturday.”

“Israelis have been playing soccer on Shabbat since before the establishment of the state. We offered the compromise because we don’t believe in religious coercion.”

But according to Melchior, a group of more hardcore observant players, including Avi Ivgi of Hapoel Petah Tikva, went to the Labor Court.

“The minute you take it to court, that’s coercion, not dialogue; it creates extremes. The whole issue became extreme.”

“We’re in deadlock,” agrees Barzel.

The Sabbath as a right

According to Judith Shulevitz, a US-based journalist and author of The Sabbath World, the issue of sporting events on the Sabbath is not new and not unique to Israel.

“Well into the 1950s [some Americans] didn’t approve of sporting events on Sunday,” she says.

Shulevitz says that the soccer standoff sounds to her like both a discrimination issue and a labor issue. “If you require everyone to play on Shabbat then religious players cannot participate. It’s hard for me to believe that some of the players who are not themselves religious are not motivated by the desire to stand in solidarity with their fellow players who are religious.”

Judith Shulevitz (Photo credit: Facebook)
Judith Shulevitz (via Facebook)

Melchior concurs.

“I am the father of kids who love sports—but there is no possibility for a religious kid who keeps Shabbat to play soccer in Israel. We talk a lot about religious coercion. This is secular coercion. Not just soccer, but tennis, judo and swimming. Every competition is on Shabbat.”

But the Sabbath is also a labor issue, says Shulevitz. “Because labor has been so decimated in our time, it has been forgotten that one of the great issues for the labor movement in the 19th and early 20th century was restricting working hours to a 40-hour workweek with 8-hour days as well as creating days of rest. That was an enormous accomplishment.”

In Israel, Saturday is the day of rest.

“Whether you observe in a religious fashion or nonreligious fashion, you’re entitled to it. If Israel can’t even offer its own people Shabbat, in what way is it a Jewish state?

But is there any value beyond being religious to having a day of rest that’s sort of forced on you?

“It is forced on you. I would argue along with the Supreme Court jurist Felix Frankfurter that it is a public good to have one day when people are able to be with their families and with each other. Frankfurter wrote that the Sabbath is ‘a cultural asset of importance, a release from the daily grind, a preserve of mental peace, an opportunity for self-disposition.’ I guess I agree with that. If you do not guarantee members of any community a time in which they all get to not work at the same time there will never be such a time. Capitalism will never let them set their own hours if money is to be made by putting them to work.”

Can a compromise be reached?

Barzel is confident that a compromise can be reached, and this involves letting teams play on the Sabbath.

“I don’t think we’ll have a religious war because I think religious people have understood with the years that if you decided to be religious you have to pay the price. Aryeh Deri is ultra-Orthodox but on the other hand he is a pragmatic man.”

“Israel doesn’t have enough soccer fields or days of the week. Everywhere else in the world the games are on the weekend. In England all the games are Saturday and Sunday. Since before the establishment of the state we have been playing soccer on Shabbat. You want to change that? The State of Israel will have to spend billions of shekels to allow this to happen—on facilities” with enough room to accommodate all the games and practices that formerly took place on Shabbat.

Besides, says Barzel, for many Israelis soccer is a religion.

“You prepare for it all week, anticipate it all week. Then you come to the game with a feeling of reverence and sanctity.”

The two sides have a court hearing September 7. Managers of the premier and national football leagues on Tuesday declared their intention to strike if Deri does not sign a dispensation for Shabbat games.

Eitan Dotan, the Israeli Football Association’s spokesman, told AFP that “if the government denies us authorization to play on Shabbat, all matches, including the national league and youth championships, will be canceled until further notice from September 12.”

Barring government action, the ruling officially enters into effect on that date.

An eager Hapoel Katamon fan (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
An eager Hapoel Katamon fan (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Deri’s office declined to comment to The Times of Israel on the topic.

Melchior thinks that if there is a strike, it won’t last very long, because there is too much money, too many people and too much love for the game at stake. But he does propose his own solution to the problem.

“Israel needs to pass a law to turn Sunday into another day off. Interior Minister Silvan Shalom has actually proposed this in the Knesset. The moment it happens, Sunday can be the day that all parents take their kids to games.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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