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Why All Israelis Should Vote for the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party

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Interior Minister Arye Dery blocks Supreme Court President Miriam Naor from entering a shop on Shabbat after she ruled that stores in Tel Aviv are allowed to open on Saturday.
Interior Minister Arye Dery blocks Supreme Court President Miriam Naor from entering a shop on Shabbat after she ruled that stores in Tel Aviv are allowed to open on Saturday.Credit: Amos Biderman

The news about Shas’ slip in the polls, according to which the party would win only four seats if a Knesset election were held today, is a cause for concern. That is because of the connection between Shas’ shaky position and the level of religious coercion imposed on Israel citizens.

That connection stems from the pressure Arye Dery is under. Eli Yishai is breathing down his neck. Yishai asserts that if he were in charge the supermarkets would not have remained open on Shabbat. The opposition within Shas also accuses the party leader of failing. There is now a fear that Dery will adopt a radical approach just to stop the volley of criticism at home.

And Dery isn’t the only one under pressure. So are the other Haredi MKs. Yaakov Litzman is under fire from the Gur Admor Rabbi Yitzhak Alter. Moshe Gafni is feeling the heat from Rabbi Aharon Steinman. Thus, the two are demanding a retroactive law that will enable closing Tel Aviv grocery stores on Shabbat, despite the recent High Court of Justice ruling that they can remain open.

Dery, in contrast, is torn between pressure from his own constituency and his reluctance to provoke secular Jews, which he realizes is a grave mistake. He has said that “secular Jews should decide what to do with their Shabbat. Israel is not a state of Jewish law.” Thus, he is prepared to accept the High Court ruling regarding Tel Aviv. But, he wants to pass a law that will prevent the phenomenon from spreading elsewhere, and that’s bad enough.

The Haredi MKs say that the High Court simply hates Judaism, so it will rule however it wants to. But, the truth is that the High Court tried to broker a compromise between Israel’s religious character and its democratic character. It tried to find this necessary balance to allow Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv to live together.

The fact is the High Court of Justice ruling was not unanimous. Five judges allowed the opening of 164 grocery stores on Shabbat, but two of them dissented. Surprise, surprise – the five in favor were secular and the two opposed were religious, indicating there is no correct interpretation of the law. There are different interpretations, which derive from the justices’ worldviews. Fortunately, religious justices are still a minority in the court. That will change one day.

However, it hasn’t happened yet. Outgoing court President Miriam Naor, who wrote the totally liberal ruling, deserves credit. “Live and let live,” she wrote in her conclusion. These words are reminiscent of the election slogans of the General Zionists in the 1950s: “Let us a have a life in this country.” Naor added that “every individual must be able to shape his Shabbat according to his way and beliefs.”

She ruled that the municipality has full authority to determine the character of the city, and the interior minister may not impose his arguments and outlook upon it.

Naor noted that the job of the municipality is to find the correct balance between conflicting rights, but Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, had already gone too far in placating religious and Haredi Jews. He announced that he would reduce the number of grocery stores open on Shabbat from 238 to 164, a 31 percent reduction, even though anyone who chose to live in Tel Aviv chose to do so knowing that the city is open, tolerant and liberal. They know all Tel Aviv residents have the right to enjoy Shabbat as they please –whether that be in a synagogue or at a theater, cinema, lecture, hike, or even shopping mall.

However, Huldai’s major compromise didn’t appease Litzman and Gafni. They want to close the city entirely.

If they pass such legislation, the issue will be yet another example of the extremist religious coercion that we suffer in other areas like marriage, public transportation on Shabbat and kashrut. Closing grocery stores will be the straw that breaks the secular camel’s back. Secular Israelis won’t let this happen. They will fight over this, and in the end they will win. After all, the majority is secular.

So, if we don’t want Dery to be compelled to adopt the extremist positions of Litzman and Gafni, Shas needs to gain seats in the polls. So you need to vote Shas, or at least tell the pollster you will.

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