The Shabbat bill controversy: A focused perspective on the religious debate and the conduct of religious politicians

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Ruach Hiddush

In Hiddush’s last newsletter, we highlighted a number of aspects involving the current controversy over the Shabbat bill. What we would now like to share with you, our colleagues, is a more focused perspective on the religious debate and the conduct of religious politicians in this controversy. This will give you deeper insight as to how this controversy factors in the ongoing debate over religion and state. This account is not advocating that all stores be open on Shabbat. On the contrary, what Hiddush has been advocating for is a serious and responsible re-assessment of the social, economic, and legal aspects of Shabbat in the Jewish and democratic State. Only in this way can Israel establish a balance between these often conflicting values.

The Israeli public discourse and news bulletins were dominated by the updates and reports on the status of the Shabbat bill. Below, we are highlighting the views of the religious participants in the debate. This debate helps us understand the positions of the religious players in Israel’s religion-state debate.

It’s important to appreciate how heated the debates over this Shabbat bill were. There was a record setting filibuster effort on the part of the opposition, with extremely contentious and sensitive crisis points that brought out some of the most contentious issues – and some of the most objectionable initiatives – due to the pressure to deliver the adoption of the bill.

Minister Rabbi Deri (Leader of Shas) quoted Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who supposedly ruled that one should rise from mourning one’s loved ones to vote. He even turned to MK Glick’s (Likud) rabbi in Otniel, asking if MK Glick could come in to vote on the bill, despite the death of his wife. On the one hand Deri tried to justify it, on the other hand he apologized for it. This bill created a mess of multiple dimensions, raising a number of questions, involving religion-state, halakha, nature of Shabbat – the incident with MK Glick was only one example.

MK Rabbi Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism), speaking at the Committee of Internal Affairs in a key meeting held on Dec. 28, 2017, said the following: “Anyone who says that it is possible to observe Shabbat in multiple ways is like someone who says that you can maintain your diet and continue eating starches – don’t lie to yourselves.”

He then drew special attention to American Jewry: “we need to remember that most of American Jewry is assimilating, and at the end there won’t be even a remnant left because they have not observed Shabbat. There was no way to make a living there without working on Shabbat. This is how millions of Jews were annihilated. President Herzog called it the silent holocaust of the USA. This is an annihilation of Judaism. The only ones that will keep American Jewry are those who observe Shabbat and their offspring. All the rest will disappear without a trace…. the sages say that Jerusalem was not destroyed, other than for the fact that they desecrated Shabbat. You presume to speak on behalf of the prophets (turning to the MKs from the left). The prophets warn that if Shabbat is not observed there will be no Jewish people.”

Just as Eichler sees no future survival of the Jewish people without observing Shabbat, so does MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) maintain that without Shabbat there is no existence for the state of Israel. Gafni said: “If, God forbid, there isn’t Shabbat here, there will be no state.”

 

Where are traditional Israeli Jews on this controversy?

The controversy over the bill covers a number of issues that come into play in both public and political debates. For instance, there is a highly popular media personality (Sivan Rahav-Meir), a formally secular journalist who married a Haredi media figure, became religious, and now actively pursues religious outreach. She wrote an article in a Haredi news portal, stating: “The battle over Shabbat is not theirs (Orthodox Jews). It is the battle of a very large population that is being very silenced – the traditional public. They are the ones who are being trampled and are forced into undergoing reeducation.”

Many politicians pushing the bill have similarly claimed that they are supporting it for the sake of Israel’s traditional Jews, but Hiddush’s ongoing polling reveals that as catchy as these claims are, they are not borne out by the facts. This is simply demagoguery – “don’t confused me with the facts, my mind is made up,” which is repeatedly exemplified by politicians and ideologues who really don’t care about the facts – but are quick to invoke claims that support their preconceived positions.

In Dec. 2017 Hiddush conducted a poll, asking: “There is an intense struggle in the political and public arena over Shabbat. The ultra-Orthodox political parties are initiating initiatives to prevent commercial activity, maintenance, and transportation on Shabbat, and they demand the authority to stop even the limited activity that exists today (such as the Convenience Store Law that passed this week in the Knesset on its first reading). What is your position on this struggle?”

72% of Jewish Israelis supported allowing diverse activities on Shabbat, and 28% supported the ultra-Orthodox position. A closer look at the break-down of public positions, by religious self-identification, shows that the clear majority of those who define themselves as traditional support the position held by secular Jewish Israelis. 86% of Jews who identify as “traditional, not so close to religion” (the larger group) supported this position. Even 69% of Jews who identify as “traditional, close to religion” agreed with the secular Jewish population.

The results of an earlier May 2017 poll (following the Supreme Court upholding the Tel Aviv municipal ordinance that allowed a number of markets to be open) were similar. Among the general public, 73% were opposed to bypassing the Supreme Court via counter-legislation, pushed by Minister Deri and his colleagues. This included 91% of “traditional, not so close to religion” and 60% of “traditional, close to religion” Israelis.

As for allowing essential maintenance work on Israel’s railways on Shabbat (Nov. 2017), 71% of the general public supported this. This includes 87% of the “traditional, not so close to religion” and 65% of the “traditional, close to religion” Israelis. Lastly, when it comes to permitting public transportation on Shabbat in Israel (Dec. 2017), 69% of the general public supported this. This includes 85% of the “traditional, not so close to religion” and 56% of the “traditional, close to religion” Israelis.

 

How should Israel deal with Shabbat?

Another popular Orthodox journalist, Sarah Beck, took it further in an article she wrote about the debate, claiming that “the will to trample to the Jewish character of Shabbat in the public domain emanates from one essential and deep root. Zionism from its inception is divided into two streams – those who see in it the desire of the Jewish people to be “a nation like all nations” (as Herzl stated), or in other words: to continue in the Land of Israel the process of assimilation that due to antisemitism failed in Europe. And those who wanted to see in it the realization of Judaism by creating a model society that would be ‘a light unto the nations’ (as envisaged by Ehad Ha’am and Bialik)”

So, resolves Beck, “The real discussion is whether we share a desire to have a Jewish state. The vocal proponents for opening the stores,” says Beck, “want Israel to let them quietly assimilate, or, as they call it in it in their updated politically correct style, ‘a state of all its citizens.’” Beck maintains that the “purpose of our existence here and of the unique historical story of our people is creating a more humane and a more just society, which draws from our (Jewish) sources.”

I could not agree more with Beck’s noble aspiration to see Israel as anchored in a commitment to a model society, committed to justice and humanity. The truth, though, is that her characterization of the current debate as continuing the dichotomy between the assimilationists and the “light unto the nations” proponents is false and self-serving. We cannot do justice here to an analysis of the current ideological trends within Israel and Zionist society, but suffice it to say that I cannot recall in recent years any of the religious parties, especially not the Haredi parties, speaking about model society or just society, and acting to advance these notions in their political capacities.

Nor is Beck doing justice to a large segment of Israeli secular Jewish society who vehemently oppose religious coercion but are fully committed to Jewish culture, national values, and maintaining the Jewish character of the state of Israel in a variety of ways that are anything but buying into the notion that Israel should be like the USA or France.

 

Blaming the Supreme Court

Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) hangs the need for the bill on the harsh criticism he and other politicians, mostly in the Haredi and the right-wing political parties, aim against Israel’s Supreme Court. He said: “the bill attempts to minimize the harm caused by the Supreme Court ruling (on the Tel Aviv ordinance)… the Supreme Court interferes in matters of religion-state in a very brutal manner, and it does not enable the Knesset and the Government to make decisions in such delicate matters.”

MK Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said: “all the problems in the area of religion-state start with Supreme Court rulings. The Supreme Court has always ruled against Judaism, from the founding of the state. There wasn’t one ruling in favor of Judaism. Soon we will lose the Jewish character of the state, and even its democratic character.” (This is a favorite line with MK Gafni – see his comment about the Supreme Court in relation to its ruling on Israel’s Mikva’ot)

MK Eichler (United Torah Judaism) said: “… comes the Supreme Court, which is a dictatorial gang rule, which has illegally gained control of the state, and they invalidate the authority of the Minister of the Interior to close stores in Tel Aviv… We are in a state of occupation rule of the anti-religious dictatorship of the Supreme Court…”

 

Passing the bill by threatening

Deri, Litzman, Gafni made it clear throughout the recent controversy – that if the bill did not pass the government would fall. They also alluded to further demands that if not met would bring down the government, such as the draft bill (the demand that exempting yeshiva students from IDF service be enshrined in law in spite of the contrary supreme court ruling).

For instance, Gafni said: “If the markets bill does not pass, we will cause a crisis whereby we will not support bills of the other coalition parties. The government will continue to survive, but without legislation. If there is no markets bill, there won’t be any other laws.” He also indicated that he is waiting for the right opportunity to bring forth another amendment to apply retroactively and include T.A.

 

Making non-religious, moralistic arguments

While it is clear that enforcing Shabbat observance is the primary motivation of the religious political proponents of the bill, sometimes other arguments were thrown into the mix to make their demand more palatable – and seemingly more social-oriented. One such attempt was Sivan Rahav’s reference to the traditional public, which was trampled on (according to her).

Another example is of Rabbi Gafni, who said: “there is also the social-democratic issue – of hurting people who work that have stores in Tel Aviv, and would not be able to compete commercially because they observe Shabbat.”
While invoking social-democratic considerations, there is very little in the record of the haredi parties to indicate that they are actively pursuing the advancement of these principles. A compelling example of the hypocrisy in raising this claim could be seen this week:

In reacting to the despicable account of the Prime Minister’s son’s conduct (as revealed in a secret taping of a night on the town, in which he a couple of his friends were chaperoned from one strip club / whore house to another in T.A. by his security detail in a governmental security car, on Friday night a couple of years ago), Rabbi Gafni’s reaction to this scandalous conduct was “it’s not right – and I hope it stops. This reality in which you drive a governmental car on Shabbat is not right.. It has to stop.

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