The Trap of Discarding Israel's Religious Status Quo

The dream of a popular secular rebellion is appealing, but it’s a mirage. Secular folks who demand open stores on Shabbat cannot simultaneously adopt the definition of the state as a Jewish state.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A protest in Tel Aviv against the lack of public transport on the Jewish Sabbath, September 3, 2016. The main placard says, "Waiting for a bus for Shabbat."
A protest in Tel Aviv against the lack of public transport on Shabbat, September 3, 2016. The main placard says, "Waiting on a bus for Shabbat."Credit: David Bachar
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Once again we see that Jews and trains are a bad fit. When the Jewish state’s national identity is set by prohibiting railway work on the Sabbath and measured by the number of stores in Tel Aviv that will open on Shabbat, and when the state’s Jewish residents adopt these standards of self-definition, it’s tempting to ask if there’s really any need for a state whose national raison d’etre is observing Shabbat as the essence of its Jewishness.

To be honest, Shabbat in the Jewish state is not a holy day. It’s a Jewish-political holy day. In Jaffa, for instance, all the stores are open, also in Nazareth and in Rahat, because these cities are not part of the Jewish state. Jewish holiness stops at their borders, and the Jewish part of the Hours of Work and Rest Law doesn’t apply to them. And not only to them. Tens of thousands of Jews work on Shabbat, with or without special waivers — in stores, on soccer fields, in restaurants and much more, with little hindrance or the need to pay a fine.

Ostensibly, it was the “status quo” that institutionalized the turning of a blind eye to all of these transgressors. But the letter that David Ben-Gurion sent to the Agudath Israel leadership in 1947 in order to obtain their consent to the establishment of a Jewish state said nothing about prohibiting the violation of Shabbat. It did say that Shabbat would be a day of rest for Jews. But a ban on upgrading the railway on Shabbat? Barring public transportation? Closing stores? None of that was included in the letter of understanding, which Zerach Warhaftig later dubbed the “status quo letter.”

It would be off the mark to accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of shattering the status quo, since there was nothing to shatter. Ben-Gurion’s letter was neither holy writ nor an article of the constitution. It was an unnecessary political arrangement that stemmed from a less than genuine political necessity. Netanyahu did what any other leader would have done in his place. Nor are the Haredim at fault. They squeezed where any other politician would have squeezed — As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” Shabbat, then and now, is basically a game of rag ball the gang plays on Shabbat. The object is to score a goal, sometimes on the train tracks and sometimes in Tel Aviv.

And suddenly, good Jews — ones who do not observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays but derive their nationality from the existence of a Jewish state, see an opportunity to smash the status quo that dissipated long ago. They argue that if Netanyahu allegedly violated it, then secular folks can too. But herein lies a dangerous trap. If they want to do well by the secular, well the original status quo was actually good for secular Jews. It not only permits mass Shabbat desecration, it even requires core studies in the “independent” ultra-Orthodox school system. The deceptive thing is that it’s not a simple profit and loss calculus. A secular person who adopts the definition of the state as a Jewish state, on the assumption that this definition gives the supreme legitimization for its national existence, is thereby also granting supreme authority to the religious sages to determine what is proper Judaism, and thus what makes a worthy Jewish state.

The dream of a popular secular rebellion is appealing, but it’s a mirage. Secular folks who demand open stores on Shabbat cannot simultaneously adopt the definition of the state as a Jewish state. In their opposition to religious coercion, they should be adopting the definition of the state as a civil state, one that draws its authority from the citizens and not from God. One that is ready make measured allowances for radical believers, but without losing the essence of its mission as a state of all its citizens. How many secular people are really willing to cross this barrier?

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