The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday once again squirmed out of its national responsibility and avoided taking a decision on a Tel Aviv bylaw that would allow more supermarkets to open on Shabbos, and it’s difficult to understand why.
At issue is a bylaw that was passed by the Tel Aviv City Council in 2014 allowing 164 stores to open on Shabbos. The bylaw hasn’t gone into effect because no interior minister has signed off on it. In response, the City Council petitioned the High Court, which ordered the government to make a decision by the end of this week. Thus, the urgency of Sunday’s meeting.
The irony is that unlike many of the thorny issues that come before the Cabinet — like the agreement to develop off-shore natural gas and Amona — Shabbos enjoys consensus in the Cabinet and throughout the country.
It isn’t just the chareidi parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas — who are in favor of protecting the status quo on Shabbos, but the Jewish Home party (formerly the National Religious party).
“Shabbat is a Jewish and national value,” said Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. “Any change in its character which is not unanimously agreed upon will cause irreversible damage. I will oppose any efforts to cause such a change.”
MK Betzalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) sent a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu demanding that he keep the coalition agreement between the Jewish Home party and the Likud, which includes a commitment to maintain the status quo on religious issues.
He quoted paragraph 42 in the coalition agreement which states that “the status quo on matters of religion and state will be maintained as has been accepted for decades in Israel.” Paragraph 44 states that “the government will act to respect the Shabbat and Jewish festivals and will not allow workers to be discriminated against for observing the Shabbat and festivals.”
In a radio interview, he spoke passionately about Shabbos as a gift to the entire world and the selfishness of those who would subject to servitude thousands of minimum-wage earners who would be forced to work a seven-day work week so that they could shop on Shabbos, instead of Friday or Sunday.
Even party leader Naftali Bennet, who has been less than forceful when it comes to religious issues, released a statement last week stating unequivocally that “the standing of Shabbat in Israel is not subject to debate. It is a national asset that must be protected as is.”
The vast majority of Likud voters are at the very least traditional and oppose any breach in public Shabbos observance in Tel Aviv, which would quickly spread to cities around the country, R”l, changing the fabric of Israeli society. It is clear to all that 164 stores would quickly lead to full bus service and a total breakdown of Shabbos observance in the public domain.
The Labor party, as well, has prominent members who fiercely oppose any change to the status quo on Shabbos, even if out of socialist motivations. Shortly after she was elected the party’s leader in 2011, Shelly Yachimovich urged secular Israelis to demonstrate in front of stores that opened on Shabbos.
“They should protest the exploitation of the worker,” she said. “A weekly day of rest is the most wonderful socialist law ever legislated. The ones who gave this gift to the world were the Jewish people. And this they [secular politicians] are trying to break in the guise of a struggle between the secular and chareidim, and it’s not true. Every working person is entitled to at least one day a week of rest.”
What, then, makes the law so controversial? Fear of upsetting a stridently secular minority, and, more importantly for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, fear of driving voters into the arms of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid who will seize the opportunity to paint himself as the champion of the “oppressed secular” minority.
This fear of seeing a political opponent rise in the polls has paralyzed the prime minister, forcing him to appeal to the High Court for an extension on what should be a straightforward decision. But the fear is baseless.
Lapid’s rise in the polls, if it should happen, will come at the expense of the decimated Labor party, which is perceived by the public as vacillating on every issue. It will not diminish the religious-right bloc, since the vast majority of the public wants to see Shabbos observance protected as a national asset, either on religious grounds or, l’havdil, socialist ones.
Finally, fear isn’t always a bad thing; the wrong fear is. Prime Minister Netanyahu has to be afraid of going down in history as the prime minister who oversaw the collapse of Israel as a Jewish state, chalilah. What every prime minister since David Ben Gurion understood — that the status quo must be preserved, that Shabbos keeps the Jews more than the Jews keep Shabbos — a right-wing prime minister with two shomer Shabbos children doesn’t?
Some things transcend politics. Shabbos is most definitely one of them.