Explained: Why Secular Israelis Are Burning Mad Over Religious Coercion

A last-minute switch of the school schedule for an odd religious holiday is the latest spat to worry Israelis about their country's democracy

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy stands around a bonfire as he celebrates the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'Omer in the city of Ashdod, Israel May 25, 2016.
Amir Cohen, Reuters

As the Israeli spring kicks in with April temperatures shooting to record highs the religious-secular divide is also heating up. The secular majority is furious over the muscle-flexing by the politically influential ultra-Orthodox parties and their ability to make mainstream politicians bow to their will.

The latest conflagration comes over the minor Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'omer. It’s a bizarre controversy over a somewhat bizarre holiday. The spat has hit as controversy flares over the opening of stores on the Sabbath in the secular stronghold of Tel Aviv and as mainstream Israel glowers at the many ultra-Orthodox Jews refusing to take part in the commemorations for Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day.

“All of this together is giving us a glimpse of what Israel looks like with the ultra-Orthodox parties in charge and what their vision is for the state,” says Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush, a group that promotes religious freedom in Israel. “And those who want Israel to be both Jewish and democratic need to pay attention,” he says, adding that the recent rifts “are examples of the excesses that are possible when they crack the whip and the secular parties obey.”

Lag Ba’omer, which originates in the Middle Ages, marks the end of a vicious plague that carried off tens of thousands of yeshiva students more than 1,000 years ago – maybe. It has been elevated in mainstream Israeli society because of the fun involved: massive bonfires and the roasting of potatoes, marshmallows and hot dogs – and often singing and dancing around the fire.

This year, the holiday falls on Sunday May 14, so bonfire night is the evening before – Saturday night, meaning kids will have the day off school on Sunday (a workday in Israel) to sleep off the previous night’s festivities. Most working parents already roll their eyes at the loss of a school day for a religiously insignificant holiday, but this year many have decided to take advantage of the long weekend by planning trips.

They were incredulous to learn Friday just three weeks before the holiday that Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the school holiday would be moved to Monday. The decision came amid pressure by ultra-Orthodox leaders and a request from the Chief Rabbinate, worried that the gathering of wood for bonfires would take place before sundown Saturday night violating the Sabbath.

Bennett’s spokesman said the change was designed to meet the needs of students who observe the Sabbath and wouldn’t have time after Shabbat to build their bonfires. But the spokesman didn’t explain why the change happened at the last minute.

Even Chabad is unhappy

For parents and teachers, it was infuriatingly disruptive Saturday off, school Sunday, Monday off. On a practical level, it would likely change nothing those who have scheduled festivities and entertainment around the bonfire Saturday night are unlikely to change their plans because of a change in the school vacation day. Even worse is the news for high school students who have been studying for the national matriculation examination in computing. Their test, scheduled for the Monday, will be postponed to an as-yet-unannounced date in a heavily scheduled exam season.

Across the Israeli media, parents and teachers have been railing against the upturning of their work and family lives. Those who have already paid for vacations may now lose money or miss work and school days.

Even some religious groups, like Chabad, are unhappy, having booked venues and entertainment for Saturday night festivities involving hundreds of thousands of participants, which can’t be rescheduled.

The last-minute timing of the switch appears to be calculated to leave little time to challenge the decision in the courts, where another religious-secular hot potato a Tel Aviv ordinance allowing grocery and convenience stores to open on Saturdays has already been tossed.

On April 19, the High Court of Justice approved Tel Aviv bylaws that would allow around 250 grocery and convenience stores to remain open on Shabbat. Interior Minister Arye Dery, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has slammed the ruling, saying he aimed to strike down the bylaw.

As Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai put it, “The city of Tel Aviv was always free and will remain free.” The carefully calibrated bylaws, he says, maintain a balance between reserving the Sabbath as a day of rest and the needs of the city’s residents.

When the court’s decision came down, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the chairman of the United Torah Judaism party, decried the “continuation of the gross judicial intervention in the values of religion and Jewish law, which leaves no choice but to advance a legal move to bypass the High Court of Justice in order to prevent the continued erosion of the Jewish tradition and religion in Israel.”

Politics over people

Litzman and other leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as Bennett’s religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi, are reportedly pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to draft legislation that would address the “breach in the walls of Shabbat” that the court decision represents.

As Hiddush's Regev notes, in both these controversies, politicians both inside and outside the government are prioritizing their ability to build a governing coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties over representing their constituencies not the best sign for Israel’s democratic future.

While polls show that large majorities both on the right and left support the opening of some businesses on the Sabbath, political leaders are reluctant to speak out on the issue.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who burst onto the political scene in 2012 as an opponent of religious coercion, has backtracked. And even Labor Party leaders like Isaac Herzog and the growing list of party colleagues who want his job have declined to speak out on religion-state issues, hesitant to be put on the religious community’s enemies list.

But Regev says he hopes bold moves like the last-minute Lag Ba’omer switch will show the true face of the ultra-Orthodox agenda, and the public outcry will force the country’s leaders into action.

“These moves show that far as the Haredi political parties’ leadership is concerned, the State of Israel is merely a horrible nuisance to be tolerated and taken advantage of,” he said, adding: “We who want a democratic, as well as a Jewish, state should be deeply concerned about the education minister bowing so quickly to this demand that disrupts both academics and people’s lives.”