Politics in Israel reached a new low this week when ultra-Orthodox lawmakers were so desperate to pass a bill that they tried to drag grieving Knesset member Yehuda Glick from alongside his wife’s fresh grave in order to vote in the Knesset. The bill in question would ban supermarkets from remaining open on Shabbat. I suppose even though Jewish law says that Shabbat does not trump saving a life, according to these MKs, Shabbat trumps shiva. Or maybe, in the eyes of some misguided leaders, controlling religion in Israel trumps all.
The Supermarket bill says that municipalities will not be allowed to keep stores open on Shabbat unless they have express approval from the Interior Minister – who is currently ultra-Orthodox Shas and former inmate MK Aryeh Deri. Although there was some debate about gas stations and convenience stores, the bill passed its first reading this week as is.
It is well-known that the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel controls quite a bit of life for the rest of Israel. All matters of marriage, divorce and conversion require the approval of the rabbinic courts, which are controlled by ultra-Orthodox parties. Although some independent moderate-Orthodox groups have certain approval for conversions, they must be approved by the same Shas-controlled Interior Ministry. In other words, when it comes to Jewish identity and personal status, ultra-Orthodox politicians already have the final say.
What is perhaps less well-known, however, is how religious rules control Sabbath observance. Due to pressure from religious parties, there is no public transport in most cities in Israel, making it impossible for many people to get around on their only real day off. This means that non-car-owners who work hard all week, or kids who come home from the army or from university, for example, and want to get together with their friends or go to the beach have no real way to do this. And non-Jews in Israel – whether citizens, visiting tourists, or long-term volunteers – are completely stuck on Shabbat. For many of them, Shabbat in Israel is a form of lock-down.
This supermarket bill makes Shabbat even worse. It constitutes one more nail in the coffin of what we might call a normal weekend. Tellingly, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, the mayor of Eilat – a town whose economy is based 90% on weekend tourism – said that his city will be “completely doomed” if this bill passes.
“The coalition, led by Deri, is making a mockery of us – the free public in Israel.” wrote MK Michal Rosin on her Facebook page. “Nobody is asking to open up stores in [the ultra-Orthodox towns of] Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim. We will not impose our lifestyle on anyone. By contrast, the haredi parties and Jewish Home, with the embarrassing support of Likud and Kulanu, are ready to throw the free majority in Israel under the bus time and again.”
Yisrael Beytenu, the Russian party led by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that has a very secular base even though it sits in the coalition with the religious parties, has launched a letter-writing campaign to oppose the bill.
“[The Supermarket bill] dramatically alters the status quo that has existed for years and will harm the fabric of life of the secular residents in many localities across the State of Israel and to force them to live under forced religion,” the letter reads. “The bill as it is currently drafted almost completely deprives the elected local officials of authority and leads to the closure of businesses that today operate on Shabbat, thereby affecting the lifestyle of the secular public that uses these services.” Dozens of municipal politicians have already signed on.
What’s worse in my view is that it reinforces the already troubling practice in which ultra-Orthodox leaders are enabled in their efforts to control the real lives of everyone else in Israel. This of course affects women in Israel most of all – women who cannot get divorced and remain agunot, women who are forced to walk on the other side of the road because of ultra-Orthodox signs on the street, women who are occasionally stoned in the name of modesty. But this bill demonstrates that ultra-Orthodox leaders do not only have women in their crosshairs. This represents a seeming master-plan of making all of Israel adhere to the rules and norms of the radical religious fringe. It is a danger not only to the secular lifestyle but also to free-thinking, pluralistic, democratic Israel. And it is disturbing to the point of shocking that the secular Likud party and is making this happen.
The bill passed this week in its first reading. The second and third readings meant for this week were postponed till next week not only because of Glick’s shiva-related absence but also because Shas MK David Azulay will be absent due to surgery. I really hope that nobody else has to die in order to bury this bill once and for all.