Israeli Judge: Law on Side of Soccer Players Who Won't Play on Shabbat

Justices scold the state over its failure to decide whether to put a stop to professional soccer games on the Jewish Sabbath

Maccabi Tel Aviv plays a soccer match against Beitar Jerusalem, August 20, 2017.
Sharon Bokov

Three Supreme Court justices exhorted the state on Monday to either prohibit professional soccer games on Saturday or devise a legally acceptable solution. The remarks came as the High Court of Justice heard arguments on a demand to end professional soccer games on the Jewish Sabbath, on the grounds that they violate a law mandating rest for workers from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

The petition was filed last year by the Movement for a Jewish State.

Justices Neal Hendel, Noam Sohlberg and Anat Baron urged the state to make a decision soon, saying that if not they would be forced to take action on the issue themselves.

Hendel noted that many people are harmed by the failure to enforce the law on Shabbat rest in regard to soccer. He said the law is on the side of the players who have asked that they not be forced to work on Shabbat.

At the start of the session, a representative of the state said that an ad hoc interministerial panel, whose members include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Minister Haim Katz and which has the authority to issue a blanket Shabbat work permit for everyone involved in professional soccer, is slated to convene by the end of November. The committee met twice in August, but failed to reach a decision.

In response to the petition, the court issued in November 2016 a show-cause order instructing the attorney general to explain the failure to enforce, with regard to professional soccer players, the article of the Hours of Work and Rest Law specifying that Saturday is a day of rest for Israel’s Jewish workers.

At the beginning of the year, the state told the court that Shabbat soccer is a complex and sensitive issue. The response cited then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who in 2015 stated that it would be unreasonable to change the decades-old status quo by banning professional soccer on Shabbat.

The state also said in its response that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit believes the best solution would be a blanket Sabbath work permit for professional soccer, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to initiate such a move.

No such permit has been issued.

“We recognize that this is a complex issue, our question is what you all did in the past two years other than the two committee meetings,” Sohlberg said during Monday’s session.

“It’s insulting. There’s foot-dragging here. We understand that it’s complex and there are many sides, but two years? How much will you need, four years, six years?” added Hendel.

“We allow updates from the state when we see there’s progress in the committee, but our impression is that there’s no real progress. It’s injury time, we’re nearly at the end,” Sohlberg told a representative of the state who asked the justices to allow the state to continue with its consultations and to brief the court after the next committee meeting.

More than 300 professional players, including around 100 from the Premier League, have signed a petition demanding that the Saturday games be shifted to midweek.

The justices noted several times during the session on Monday that as they see it, the decision should be made by the government and not the court, but they also stressed that if the state continued to drag its feet they would be forced to act.

“Not everything can be put to the court,” Baron said. Hendel added that while the interministerial committee was a good idea, “you must work with more effort. ... We cannot wait. ... You are forcing us to decide.”

The Movement for a Jewish State argues that a blanket Sabbath work permit for soccer would violate the status quo and pave the way for shifting additional games to Saturday.