Israel's Economy Is Stuttering, and These Lawmakers' Solution Is a Four-day Workweek

Eli Cohen (Kulanu) and David Amsalem (Likud) say productivity won't decline, because workers will just 'work harder.' Why don't we start right now?

A shopping mall in Israel. Cohen argues that an additional weekend day will translate into more purchases.
Nir Keidar

The country’s economic data doesn’t look good. The growth rate is low, the standard of living is falling relative to the West, exports are declining, manufacturing is barely handing on, foreign tourism is in crisis and productivity is low.

So the government’s economists sat themselves down for a consultation and came to the conclusion that it’s vital to raise productivity, implement reforms, cut red tape and make the public sector more efficient in order to return to high growth rates. But two Knesset members found a much better solution.

Eli Cohen (Kulanu) and David Amsalem (Likud) propose a switch to a four-day workweek: from Monday through Thursday, with a three-day weekend. This, they argue, will improve our quality of life, reduce worker burnout and make Israeli families stronger. What fun! The proposal would begin with one weekend a month.

In fact, the idea isn’t new. Five years ago, then-Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom floated a similar plan. But Shalom didn’t dare go as far as Cohen and Amsalem: He wanted to make Sunday a day off, as they do, but called for bringing Friday back as a half-day — as it was for decades and still is in schools and in some workplaces — for a 2.5-day weekend.

Cohen and Amsalem want more. Two and a half days is only half a day more than they get in Europe and the United States, and besides, who would agree to go back to working on Fridays? And in any case, we deserve three days off a week. After all, we need to “strengthen the family.”

Cohen also claims that even though we’ll work one day less each week, “productivity won’t decline.” And how will this miracle be achieved? “By working harder.” If that’s the case, why don’t we start working harder right now and increase growth immediately, even before cutting back to a four-day workweek? After all, all it takes is for Cohen to tell us to work harder, and we will hear and obey his word.

Cohen also proposes that the workday be lengthened slightly on Monday through Thursday, to help compensate for the day off on Sunday. But what about the law of diminishing returns? The ninth and 10th hours of a 10-hour workday are ineffective and unproductive. Every economist knows that. In other words, productivity will decline sharply the moment we move to a four-day workweek, and then we’ll have to cut salaries, thereby reducing further the already-low standard of living in Israel.

That, in turn, will widen the gap between us and the West, and instead of our Sundays off being used to “strengthen the family,” they will turn into a day of bitter recriminations sparked by the falling wages and the ensuing financial woes. Incidentally, the salaries of Knesset members would not be affected. No one measures their productivity and they set their own wages.

Cohen argues that an additional weekend day will translate into more purchases. But all that it means is that shopping has become the new definition of leisure culture. Cohen also neglects to mention that before we can go on a shopping spree, someone needs to produce and market the goods. But if we’re all working less, where will the merchandise come from?

The proposal would also deal a heavy blow to manufacturers and exporters, who wouldn’t be able to afford to keep their factories shuttered three days a week. Instead, they’d have to offer their workers double-time pay to work on Sundays. This would make all their goods more expensive and undermine exports (it would amount to a real appreciation). That’s the exact opposite of what we need

I have another question: Everyone says that in order to raise productivity, more Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews need to join the workforce. How does that jibe with the proposal to shorten the workweek?

But Cohen knows exactly why he’s proposing the additional day off. He hopes it will earn him the love and admiration of the public. If that’s the reason, why stop there? He should add another element to his proposal: a waiver of the value-added tax on all purchases made on Sundays. Then his place as the public’s darling would be guaranteed.