Opinion

Goodbye Israeli Minimarkets on Shabbat, Hello Religious Strife

The country's new 'supermarkets law' reminds us that the relationship between religion and state is a key factor that can imperil a government

Gilad Kariv
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A demonstration against the recruitment of Haredi Israelis to the IDF in Jerusalem, March 2017.
A demonstration against the recruitment of Haredi Israelis to the IDF in Jerusalem, March 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
Gilad Kariv

The unnecessary and detrimental law shutting down most stores on Shabbat has been passed. Shas leader Arye Dery won the battle for his partys ultra-Orthodox base (four to five Knesset seats) and lost the campaign for somewhat observant Israelis. Coalition whip David Amsalem showed he knows how to run the governing coalition with the same crude bullying with which he ran the Knesset Interior Committee, and the government is now ready to move on to the next fiasco.

And Israeli citizens? Well go on having to deal with populist legislation thats good for nothing but election propaganda, and with parliamentary behavior that makes us change the channel to whatever mindless program is on because wed rather our children not see how Israeli elected officials talk and act.

Still, the law and its implications deserve comment.

Comment one: A direct line connects the Western Wall and the minimarkets in Holon, Tel Aviv and Kfar Sava. Six months ago, the prime minister gave a prize to the radical forces in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, street when he froze the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. But otherwise he showed a lack of leadership. The result: Dery and other key Haredi politicians — Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni — essentially became the puppets of the radicals, and their weakness in the Haredi street is being played out on the prime minister and us all.

Comment two: In the short term, the supermarkets law wont change things very much. In the longer term, it will ignite religious battles in many localities and lead to many legal and political battles. It will make it harder to find wise and commensurate solutions on the local level, and require local candidates for office to align with the extremists.

Comment three (perhaps the most important of all): Tens of thousands of people will continue to work on Shabbat without proper social protection. Commercial activity on the Sabbath presents a difficult social challenge. This is no trivial matter. The issue should be handled with legislation that increases social protection for everyone who works on Shabbat, be it at leisure venues or in vital services.

Such legislation could stipulate that employees cant be made to work every Shabbat, and cant be made to work both Friday night and Saturday. It could guarantee a minimum number of free Shabbats during the year (beyond vacation days), and stipulate that commercial activity would only begin Saturday afternoon, so that there would still be 24 hours of family time. A fee could also be charged on businesses that operate seven days a week, which would go toward promoting small businesses and developing small business in towns.

None of these things (which cant be regulated by city bylaws) can be achieved today because the Haredi parties oppose all compromise (just as with the Western Wall). For them, the headlines in the Haredi weekly Yated Neeman and on radio station Kol Barama matter much more than the wider reality.

Comment four: This awful law has two positive consequences. First, it reminds us that the relationship between religion and state is one of the main subjects that can imperil an Israeli government and change the electoral map.

Second, in the next election, the battle for the Interior Ministry will resume, and the non-Haredi parties will understand that this ministry is just as important as the ministries of education, justice, defense and finance.

And one final comment: Israel needs to contend with many issues of religion and state, especially civil marriage and divorce. By definition, this requires  compromises.

But the Haredi parties have shown that they arent partners for any kind of compromise. In the coming years, a broad civic movement must arise that will press the Zionist parties to establish an ad hoc committee to come up  with arrangements for these issues. The Haredim wont be in that government, but it wouldnt be right to exploit this to soak the yeshiva budgets or institute measures that directly harm the Haredi community.

The focus will have to be finding fundamentally new arrangements on issues of religion and state. Once these are attained, it will be possible to return to the familiar political routine. It may sound unrealistic now, but this is within reach. The vast majority of Israelis know that the status quo is dead and the time has come for a new system.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

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