SHEFAYIM, ISRAEL — It looks like a day in the life of Anytown, USA. On a chilly Saturday afternoon, thousands stream into this shopping center along the highway to browse through American name-brand stores that are still novelties here: Ace Hardware, Toys 'R' Us, Office Depot, and TCBY.
But the hot new trend of shopping on Shabbat - the Jewish day of rest - is an abomination to the country's religious establishment.
And, leaning on Israel's own form of "blue laws" that prohibit work by Jews on the Sabbath, ultra-Orthodox politicians who control the Ministry of Labor are stepping up their enforcement of the restrictions by sending out controversial inspection teams each Saturday.
Uzi Lumbrozo, a computer programmer who came to shop and share lunch at a cafe with his six-year-old son, says a day like this is his form of relaxation.
"I'm sure they know better than me what the Torah says," he explains, "but if it says take Saturday for a rest, I like to rest here."
To many who want to exercise their purchasing power on their only day off - many Israelis work a six-day week - the inspections are unwelcome raids trying to impose religious values on the country's secular majority. But as labor inspectors are reaching further afield to enforce a 1951 law allowing heavy fines for things such as operating a business on the Sabbath and importing non-kosher meat, some among the four-fifths of the country that considers itself nonreligious are beginning to fight back.
In recent weeks, shoppers and employees working on the Sabbath have refused to cooperate with inspectors by ignoring demands to show their identity cards, which all Israeli citizens must carry. Scuffles have ensued as Israelis directed their anger against Druse (a small ethnic minority) and Arab inspectors who are hired like mercenaries to do the "dirty work" that is illegal for Jews to do on Saturdays. Elsewhere, there has been violence between religious Jews and secular Israelis who are afraid of fundamentalists making inroads in their neighborhoods.
Beyond the weekly culture battle being waged at shopping centers like this one just north of Tel Aviv, a new organization has begun waging a campaign to take the legal foundation for enforcing the Sabbath laws out of the hands of the Orthodox. Am Hofshi - meaning Free People, a term from the Israeli national anthem - says that the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has an opportunity next month to make such laws inconsistent with civil rights legislation passed four years ago that guarantees freedom of commerce.
But the challenge secularists are putting to Knesset members to help put an end to the blue laws could prove a thorny issue for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition is dependent on support from three religious parties.
'I DON'T want to live in Iran - I don't want to live in a theocratic state," says lawyer Yosef Paritzky, one of the leaders of the Am Hofshi movement. To him, the matter transcends the sharp divisions in Israel over the peace process. "The main issue is what this country is going to look like in the future." (See story below.)
The law that prohibits most work on the Sabbath - exceptions are made for many essential services and entertainment in some neighborhoods - applies to Israelis based on religion. Opponents say this discriminates, although in this case, against Jews rather than Arabs. By law, Jews must have Saturdays off from work, but Muslims, Christians, and others can choose whether they want Friday, Saturday, or Sunday off.
Several factors have lifted debate over that policy to a broader scale. On one hand, Israel has become a more affluent, Westernized country in which consumer demand cannot be satisfied in the five- to six-day work and school week. On the other, Mr. Netanyahu's election in May 1996 brought a new rush of power to the religious parties. Under the previous, left-wing Labor government, there was a budget for only one labor inspector to work on Shabbat. And when penalty forms were submitted to the court system, they were ignored.
Now, however, many stores are being hit with significant fines. Stores can been fined as much as $3,000 per Jewish employee working on the Sabbath. A few weeks ago, Ace Hardware was given a $43,000 penalty for operating on Saturday. Inside the store here, the manager says almost all the workers on Saturdays are either members of the Druse minority or Russian immigrants who aren't considered Jewish by the state rabbinate.
But next door at Toys 'R' Us, also battling labor laws and packed today with parents and young children, the name tags show that many Jewish employees are at work and proud of it.
A young cashier named Limor says she and many others ignore laws that make their job illegal. "That's our state," she says, rolling her eyes. "We need to fight it."