Background / A New Religious-secular Battle Comes to the Fore

In the surest of signs of a lull in Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting, fighting flares across the religious-secular divide, spurred by bill to redefine the great chimera of Israeli politics: the legal 'status quo' surrounding Jewish Sabbath.

In a sure sign of a lull in Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting, fighting across the religious-secular divide flared Monday, spurred by a bill to redefine the great chimera of Israeli politics: the legal "status quo" surrounding the Jewish Sabbath.

Traditionally, infighting over such sensitive religious issues as "Who is a Jew?" and Sabbath traffic and commerce laws, has been stilled during times of military strife, often resurfacing the moment that war, terrorism or uprisings are quieted down.

This week was no exception.

Aiming to forge a broad consensus over one of the nation's most contentious issues, senior lawmakers from five key parties - the Likud, Labor, Shas, the National Religious and Center factions - joined forces to mold a new law they believed could quell long-smoldering debates over public regulations governing the Sabbath.

The bill would forbid a wide range of commercial and manufacturing activities during the Sabbath. At the same time, the proposed law would turn a blind eye to the operation of establishments providing entertainment - including restaurants, bars, cafes, theaters and cinemas - and would allow privately operated public transportation.

In fact, comments Ha'aretz correspondent Dalia Shehori, the bill does not spell out the liberalizing elements of the law, rather they are implied in what it does not prohibit.

"Our entire goal was to reach a form of agreement over what was permissible and what was forbidden," said a co-sponsor of the bill, Nahum Langental of the National Religious Party. "Every law is worded with a negative meaning. It says what it prohibits ... If only that is what it prohibits, that alone is what is forbidden. The range of other things – to my sorrow, as an observant man, I must say – apparently will be permitted on the Sabbath."

Langental suggested that in return for a ban on selling and production of goods - strictly forbidden by Jewish tradition on the Sabbath - some religious politicians would be willing to bend on what avowedly non-religious figures have extolled in recent years as "secular culture": live theater, film, nightlife and other leisure activities.

"We banned commerce, but we are remaining silent on other matters, because we understand that this is a part of secular culture, of how they want to experience it on the Sabbath, and this will be permissible for them," Langental said.

Instead of healing wounds, however, the new bill seemed only to open old ones.

"It is most bizarre to see the weakness of thought which has attacked the secular parties, which have suddenly decided to grant a hechsher [rabbinical certificate of approval] to religious coercion," said leftist opposition leader Yossi Sarid of the secular Meretz party, a portion of whose constituency are kibbutz members whose economic livelihood is based in part on kibbutz-owned shopping centers which flourish on the Sabbath.

The language of the bill does not specifically rule out operation of kibbutz-owned stores, but Sarid said that would be the effect of the legislation. "Most of the Israeli population requires these shopping centers to buy the goods their families need, and I see no reason to keep hundreds of thousands of families from living the lives they prefer," he said.

But religious Israelis countered that Sarid's contention reflected precisely why such a new law was needed. They said that the "culture" of driving on Sabbath to make purchases - acts proscribed by Jewish law - was also contributing to an American-style materialism that threatened to undermine traditional values in Israel.

For a wary Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the jury was still out on the new bill. Lau strongly backed the prohibitions on commerce and manufacturing, but had clear reservations over easing limitations on leisure activities.

Alluding to kibbutzim and other settlements that have built shopping malls on land intended for agriculture, Lau said the current reality was an impossible one, with lax enforcement effectively permitting violations of both Jewish and Israeli law that led to businesses being open on the Sabbath. "Instead of this soil being used for making the wasteland bloom, it has been turned into stores to sell shoes and toys on the Holy Sabbath," he said.

"Today the situation is one almost of cancellation of the Sabbath, and if there is an element of reducing the damage of Sabbath desecration," then there is definitely something to talk about, said Lau, who added: "No one could expect a rabbi to come out and say 'I can allow, or close my eye, to Sabbath desecration."

Lau warned of a risk that if the message of the importance of the Sabbath is not adequately put across to the public, "then it will be very difficult to enforce a law like this without increasing the hatred between us. I would rather the Sabbath be a bridgehead, and not just one more addition to the abyss that divides us."