Ruling on Sabbath Work Rekindles Pluralism Debate

A court ruling in Israel has sparked a new debate regarding religious pluralism in the Jewish state.

The decision, issued last week by a labor court, allowed members of a kibbutz on the outskirts of Jerusalem to work on the Sabbath.

In his ruling, the judge noted that Israeli law requires only that citizens not work on their day of rest, as determined by their religion.

But the judge added that the day of rest for a collective organization such as a kibbutz cannot be determined by outside religious bodies.

He said kibbutz members could determine their own day of rest.

The decision came in the wake of charges filed last March by the Labor Ministry against six members of Kibbutz Tzora for working in kibbutz stores on the Sabbath.

The ruling heated up an already simmering debate over the extent to which the country’s religious authorities can regulate life in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “shocked” by the ruling, which he said “indicates that the kibbutzim live in a different country and are not part of the Jewish people. I am certain that the ruling that the religion of kibbutzim cannot be determined will encounter fierce opposition.”

Some of that opposition came from members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet.

Labor Minister Eli Yishai of the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, Shas Party said he planned to appeal the ruling.

Transportation Minister Shaul Yahalom, of the National Religious Party, called on the attorney general to challenge the ruling.

Yahalom said that if the appeal is rejected, he would work to change the law.

On the other side of the divide, Yossi Sarid, the leader of the secularist Meretz Party, declared that “every effort by Netanyahu and his haredim to dictate our lifestyle, change the status quo and close down shopping and cultural centers on Saturdays is a declaration of war against the secular public in Israel.”

Enforcement of the law banning work on the Sabbath has increased with the political clout of the religious parties in the Netanyahu government.

Under the control of the Shas Party, the Labor Ministry has dispatched non- Jewish inspectors to fine businesses operating on the Sabbath or employing Jewish workers on the Sabbath.

Much of the court’s ruling dealt not with religion, but the issue of fair competition.

Noting that most of the kibbutz commercial areas are located in peripheral areas, the court rejected the argument of the labor minister that the kibbutz enterprises present unfair competition to businesses that offer similar services in the center of the country.

Kibbutzim earn an estimated $36 million a year in revenues from Sabbath sales in kibbutz-run stores, gas stations, restaurants and tourist services.

These revenues represent some 50 percent to 80 percent of their total sales.

An order to close on the Sabbath, kibbutz officials have maintained, would be a death blow to these operations.

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