Struggle Over Sabbath a Clash of Economics, Ideology

Is a deep philosophical debate really all about making an extra shekel?

In 1994, Israel passed the Basic Law, roughly akin to a Bill of Rights. A section ensured freedom of business and occupation, essentially overriding laws that have allowed the government to restrict commerce on the basis of religious identity.

But instead of implementing the Basic Law, religious parties won a two-year reprieve - and then another two years - to allow them time to figure out how to adapt the old laws to the new.

Time's up, says Am Hofshi, an organization that is waging a campaign to take the legal foundation for enforcing the laws restricting business on the Sabbath out of the hands of strict Orthodox Jews. On Mar. 10, if the Knesset does not vote on another postponement, businesses can begin to fight the blue laws in court and would be almost sure to win in a precedent-setting decision.

Yosef Paritzky, an Am Hofshi leader, says the group is asking Knesset members in the secular parties - who hold 97 out of 120 seats - to abstain from the vote. Am Hofshi says it will hold secular politicians who vote with the religious parties accountable at election time. By promising to act like an American-style watchdog group, reminding voters where their elected officials stood, the group is banking on a sense that Israelis are fed up with Orthodox influence.

"We're talking about going to the court not from a political point of a view but from a broad social point of view," says Mr. Paritzky. "It's a golden opportunity for the people of Israel."

Some say that's all it is. People who agree with the laws against work on the Sabbath - including the Labor Ministry's man in charge of sending out the inspection teams - says the controversy is only about people who want to increase their profits.

"The problem is that people want to make more money," says Efraim Cahalon, the director of labor law enforcement. Most nations, he says, have a declared day of rest.

"When you live in a community, you have to be obliged to do something. I want that workers in Israel have one day to stay at home with their family," Mr. Cahalon says.

People who think that the wheels of capitalism should not be forced to stop on the Sabbath say it's not just about making money. The shopping center in this Tel Aviv suburb is owned by a kibbutz, a communal settlement founded on socialist beliefs. Only about 10 percent of the 700-member cooperative's revenue comes from stores' rent.

"It is not an economic point of view, it is a philosophical point of view," says Benny Katznlson, who edits the kibbutz newspaper. "I will read into my holy days what I want to read." He says that while he and his family don't shop on Saturdays, they would fight for the right to keep the mall open.

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