If Deri and the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members really wanted to change the situation, they would finally sit down with the rest of the coalition members, and with opposition members too, and reach a historic compromise with moral validity and a broad recognition of the people, a compromise which would regularize Shabbat’s nature in the State of Israel. An aggressive coercion of another hopeless law will achieve the exact opposite.
The status quo on Shabbat has been maintained for many years, despite the felt absence of Shabbat laws. In recent years, however, there has been an ongoing growth in the volume of commercial activity on Shabbat. More supermarkets, shopping malls and stores have been opening on Shabbat outside the cities—and recently in the city centers as well. This activity joins other industries that traditionally operate on Shabbat. The result is that for many Jewish workers—about 400,000—Shabbat in Israel is not a day of rest.
Not what we thought
The common belief was that people who work on Shabbat belong to the lower class and are weakened workers, but new data compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute reveal that working on Shabbat is a cross-sector phenomenon on all socioeconomic levels.
The figures show that most people who work on Shabbat are unionized workers, and that most of them (51 percent) earn more than the average salary in the Israeli economy.
Some of the people who work on Shabbat do it legally, but a considerable part of the Jews who work on Shabbat do it illegally. There are no accurate figures in the number of illegal workers, as the commercial and leisure activity—like supermarkets, malls, cinemas, museums and theaters—takes place according to a general permit and is of significant volume (about 25-30 percent of the commerce in Israel and an absolute majority of the leisure activity in Israel take place on Shabbat).
Why is that the situation? The problem is also with the missing laws, but it primarily has to do with enforcement. The enforcement of Shabbat laws is ridiculous both on the national level and on the local level. In 2016, for example, the Labor and Welfare Ministry issued only 11 fines for illegal work on Shabbat. The enforcement isn’t any more significant on the local level, and most authorities simply don’t want to enforce their Shabbat bylaws.
Even Deri, the current Shabbat knight, hasn’t lifted a finger to increase enforcement when he was authorized to do so as minister of economy. So even if the “supermarkets bill” is passed into a law, authorities that decide not to enforce the law will allow the situation to remain as it is today.
The current battle over the “supermarkets bill” is, therefore, political fiction. It doesn’t reflect a concern for Shabbat, but the narrow internal interests of the Knesset members who initiated the law.
Only a serious social-political discourse can help find the right balance between the cultural and religious values represented by Shabbat and preserving it in the public domain, and the need to allow citizens to spend their Shabbat the way they choose.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Faculty of Law of the Peres Academic Center.