Only if the Secular Jews Agree

In the coming days, the ministerial legislative committee will discuss the Shabbat Law. A short time later, it will come up for a preliminary vote in the Knesset.

In the coming days, the ministerial legislative committee will discuss the Shabbat Law. A short time later, it will come up for a preliminary vote in the Knesset. The law proposes banning commerce on Shabbat while allowing cultural and entertainment activity. Those secular Jews who travel by car will lose the opportunity to do shopping on Shabbat, whereas those who do not will benefit from limited public transportation on Shabbat.

The idea of cutting such a deal - entertainment in exchange for commerce - is based on a long series of proposals for formulating agreements between the secular and religious communities, including the Gavison-Medan Covenant. About 15 years ago, when the first such proposal came up, it included mutual concessions. The secular community, which at the time had just begun to develop entertainment and commercial activity on Shabbat, would have received half of what it wanted and relinquished the other half.

The religious community, which saw the country increasingly being open on Shabbat, would have accepted the lesser evil from its point of view - movie theaters and restaurants - in order to check the phenomenon of the Sabbath turning into a shopping day. Today, when the country operates 24/7, this is a one-sided deal. The secular community is being asked to give up half of what it has already attained, so that the religious community will accept the second half.

The controversy over Shabbat is only one aspect of the religious-secular rift. In the early days of the state, Israel had a social covenant - called the status quo - which institutionalized a compromise in religious-secular relations. The secular community agreed to be restricted in areas such as Shabbat, marriage and kashrut, and the religious community agreed to live in a secular state. This covenant has totally disintegrated. Today each person determines facts on the ground. When there is a dispute, the secular Jews run to the High Court of Justice and the ultra-Orthodox threaten a coalition crisis.

The Shabbat Law is another effort in a series of failed attempts to begin the formulation of a new social covenant. Supporters of the law, who include quite a number of politicians from secular parties, explain that it is not so terrible to give up shopping on Shabbat (or transferring it to Arab communities) in exchange for social solidarity and social justice.

They claim that having the shopping centers open leads to the exploitation of many workers, and that it constitutes hard and unfair competition to owners of small businesses in the cities. In this context, it should be remarked that if the Shabbat Law does in fact pass, it will be important to ensure that it does not apply to the kiosks and mini-markets, which provide a vital service to many secular customers.

But before discussing the content of the law, we must ask some hard questions. One of them is: Is it appropriate to pass a law like this in such a subversive manner? Is it possible to try to formulate a social covenant without almost any public discussion, with the secular community barely aware of the existence or provisions of the law?

The shopping centers now operate in wholesale violation of the existing "Hours of Work and Rest Law." Every Shabbat, the secular community votes anew, with its cars and its credit cards, in favor of violating this law. It is doubtful whether there is much point in passing another law that will determine that the unenforced previous law should be observed, without ensuring in advance that the public will cooperate.

Moreover, the powerful bodies who are promoting the Shabbat Law are for the most part groups that promote rapprochement and coexistence. We can reasonably assume that the last thing they want is for the secular community to feel that the shopping centers were closed to them through coercion.

Therefore, at the first stage, the Shabbat Law should be the subject of a public discussion, and both sides should be allowed to conduct a campaign to present their respective points of view. Only if reasonable public support is created is there any point in bringing the law to the Knesset.

Another question is whether it is really reasonable to try and reassemble only one part of the social covenant. We can assume that the secular community would find it much easier to give up shopping on Shabbat if in exchange it was to receive the so-called "Couples Law," in other words, some version of civil marriage. That would be a much fairer compromise.

What is certain is that anyone who tries to pass the Shabbat Law without broad public consensus will cause a reopening of the rift between the religious and secular communities, rather than rapprochement and coexistence. He might even succeed in breathing life into the political corpse called Shinui.