Secular activists oppose efforts to close Jerusalem cinema on Shabbat (file)
Secular activists oppose efforts to close Jerusalem cinema on Shabbat (file) Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

On Sunday MK Miki Zohar (Likud) presented a draft of the “Shabbat Bill” to the Ministerial Committee of Legislation. The bill outlined an overhaul to the status quo that is currently in place regarding the opening of businesses on Shabbat. A

According to Zohar, the proposed bill would alter the law and allow regular citizens to sue businesses for being open on shabbat. Additionally, business owners would face a possible criminal charge and be able to be sentenced for one year of prison time should the proposed bill become law.

MK Zohar spoke to Arutz Sheva about the outcome of the committee meeting. “There are some  ministers who are mad about the proposal and there were strong objections from the Kulanu party. MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) for one felt that it was too radical.”

MK Zohar didn’t quite understand what there was to get angry about, but respected very much the multiplicity of opinions. “Making a law to protect Shabbat for the Jewish people to me doesn’t seem radical, but it is her opinion and she is entitled to it,” he said of MK Azaria.

Kulanu MK’s requested to meet with MK Zohar, to discuss some possible alterations to the law before it would be agreed upon by the committee to propose the bill to the Cabinet. “I am not optimistic about the meeting,” said Zohar. “I believe in the law that I authored. But I am willing to meet with them and hear them out.”

According to Zohar what the Kulanu MK’s are calling radical is the part of the law that discusses a person who opens their business illegally on Saturday.

In Zohar’s words: “The proposed law states that if a person respects the law, and doesn’t open their business on Shabbat, then they would be able to sue a competitor who opens their business illegally. The current situation is that each city hall is entitled to enforce the law demanding the closure of businesses that are not culturally oriented on Shabbat. However, most city halls don’t enforce the law beyond issuing a minimal fine. Often even this is not enforced.”  

Zohar’s proposal comes as a response to the failure of city halls and local councils to enforce the current democratically agreed upon law in Israel. “The proposal that I am making is that the law should be enforced by other citizens, such as competing business owners who can sue those who open their business, since the cities aren’t doing it. Another option would be that the national government would be enabled to enforce a large fine, valuing three times the amount of income generated on Shabbat by the business.”

Currently, the law in Israel only allows places of entertainment and restaurants to open on Shabbat, but many businesses utilize the fact that the law is hardly ever enforced and stay open as well. Large malls and supermarkets are among the biggest transgressors around the country. Zohar believes that the bigger chain stores often do not heed the law, and smaller stores suffer since they do. This causes an injustice and a loss of clientele for the smaller stores, as well as forcing employees of the larger stores, who may wish to take the day off, to show up on Shabbat. Both of which are problematic in his opinion.

“We need to follow the Jewish tradition, and the law that was democratically decided upon in this country. We need to incorporate the actual deterrents to opening a store on Shabbat.  

"We need to be a Jewish and a democratic country. The situation right now puts that in jeopardy,” said Zohar. 

MK Rachel Azaria responded to the proposed bill and told Arutz Sheva why she is opposed to it in its current form. “Right now we have a status-quo regarding religion and state, and the Shabbat issue in Israel. It’s not great but it is the way that we currently handle the situation. What MK Zohar is doing is trying to change the status quo.”

MK Azaria referred to the historical precedent set in the meeting between Rabbi Yaacov Medan and Professor Ruth Gavison that is known as the Gavison-Medan covenant on Religion and State in Israel. The Covenant was created in 2004 and sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation and the Israel Democracy Institute, it has an eight page discussion on the characteristic of how Shabbat should be treated by Israeli law.

“We need to decide what type of Shabbat we want in Israel,” said MK Azaria. “Gavison and Medan agreed that businesses should be closed, but things dealing with culture and sport, should be open and that there should be a minimal amount of public transportation to allow for people to go to these places as well as visit sick relatives in hospitals. I think that is a very nice solution.”

Azaria elaborated on some of the dangerous outcomes of the bill proposed by Zohar, should it be passed into a law.  

“You cannot change the status-quo without taking everyone into consideration. The bill says that anyone can another person for opening their business on Shabbat. That is a big problem.

I don’t want to allow citizens to sue each other because of this. It will lead to a lot of negative feelings within Israeli society, and likely large protests on both sides of the religious divide as well. Why would we want that?”  

MK Azaria said that she believes that people should not be coerced into enjoying the Shabbat but that people should want to do it if they so choose. “We want most people to be able to enjoy their Shabbat. Today everything has become the secular vs the religious and we don’t have time to discuss what we want our Shabbat to be. And we should.”

With regards to MK Zohar’s proposed bill, MK Azaria emphasized that she opposed it as it is currently written.

“MK Zohar is trying to force the new law which is too radical. If you want to make a change to an existing law, make a change that people can live with, something that people can be a part of, not something that makes them feel bulldozed. If any change is made, we should put the Gavison-Medan Covenant into play.”