Israeli Soccer Losing to Religious Coercion

Watching a match live is an integral part of Israeli leisure culture — a culture that cannot be maintained in full on any other day but Saturday.

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Fans at a Maccabi Tel Aviv-Hapoel Be'er Sheva soccer match, August 30, 2015.
Fans at a Maccabi Tel Aviv-Hapoel Be'er Sheva soccer match, August 30, 2015.Credit: Sharon Bokov

Israeli soccer has been a big political and social issue over the past two weeks. The question is whether matches will continue to be scheduled on the Sabbath.

Two weeks ago the Histadrut labor federation petitioned a labor court on behalf of second-division soccer players, claiming that the athletes cannot be compelled to play on the Sabbath by law. Judge Ariella Gilzer-Kats ruled that Shabbat games were a criminal offense and issued an injunction banning such matches until a court debate this Monday sets a principle. But the real debate goes far beyond labor laws or a weekly soccer game.

Nir Alon, the head of the Histadruts sports department, has told Haaretz the petition ultimately aims to end all league matches on the Sabbath. Alon and others — whatever their motive — are citing social rights and the letter of the law, which says that working on Shabbat requires a special permit from the economy minister. But what is really at stake, as in similar cases, is a serious breach of Israels free and secular way of life.

Soccer has been played on Shabbat here for nearly 100 years, from the days of the British Mandate. The reason remains obvious — Saturday is Israels only official day of rest. There is no school on Saturday, most people have the day off and many soldiers are home for the weekend.

Watching a match live is an integral part of Israeli leisure culture — a culture that cannot be maintained in full on another day. Nor is there any need for concern about the players social rights. Like any other Israeli worker employed on the Sabbath, they simply get a different day of rest.

The real story remains religious coercion and a whittling away at the secular way of life. In the past decade the people pushing religious coercion have learned not to confront the nonreligious community openly. Their efforts are wrapped in honeyed words about the common denominator and social rights. This is also the reason the compromise proposal — teams that dont want to play on Shabbat wont have to — should be rejected.

Economy Minister Arye Dery is not expected to grant a permit to hold soccer games on the Sabbath, so the courts should block the recent efforts as a way to help preserve the status quo. Another symbol of secular life — Israeli soccer — must not be allowed to fall victim to religious coercion. Gilzer-Kats decision could have major repercussions for Israeli soccer and sports as a whole.

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