The Religious Services Ministry’s latest project, which seeks to “strengthen Shabbat in Israeli society,” shows that the missionary urge of the so-called government of change is no less powerful than that of its predecessor. And yet, what has changed? If in the past Orthodox organizations were given the task of strengthening Shabbat for secular people, now the work will be led by an association that supposedly stresses the “social” and “spiritual” aspects of Shabbat. The starting point is the same: Secular people, whose carts are empty, must be told why they should observe Shabbat.
The plan to “change the status of Shabbat among all groups in society” – accepted wording of the Religious Services Ministry for activities among non-religious groups – will operate with a private association that was selected without a bidding process or a review of alternatives. The project’s funding ballooned in two months from 4 million to 19.2 million shekels ($1.2 million to $6 million), half from taxpayers. The joint nature of such projects has been explained in the past as necessary because of a private group’s unique expertise or organizational framework, but this time the Religious Services Ministry refused to provide details about the project.
The director of the private association was less cautious in her wording: “Shabbat is a significant value that the people need to rally around, but we did not come to form a halakha [Jewish law] lobby,” she said. Later she conceded that the motivation for the program stemmed from “Jewish values,” but added that “social, cultural and economic values, which did not arise from the idea of keeping Shabbat according to Jewish law” can also be found in Shabbat. The project’s initiators called to sell the sugar-coated faith elements by “stressing Shabbat as a national asset,” “personal and community connection” and a campaign against climate change (a “green Shabbat”).
The association’s previous campaign called on families to refrain from using screens and technology on Shabbat, revealing what the organization really thinks of secular people. A video posted by the group shows isolated secular people, immersed in their cellphones, waiting to be rescued on Shabbat, when people “put down their screens and come together,” as the narrator puts it. The organization explained that the goal of the campaign was to “promote a loving and unifying Israeli Shabbat ... and contribute to social cohesion.”
The secular public does not need to be preached to about how to act on Shabbat, certainly not by a government ministry and at the taxpayer’s expense. The government should not be conducting missionary activity. What the public needs on Shabbat – and what can also contribute to family, community and the environment that has so suddenly sparked the government’s interest, and that the government must provide – is public transportation. The Religious Services Ministry should immediately shelve this plan to increase religiosity.
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The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.