Can Israel's Jewish teens flip Big Macs on Sabbath?

Ultra-Orthodox Shas party flexes political muscle while putting secularists on the defensive.

The Palestinian peace process aside, one of the most contentious issues in Israel today is over Jewish teens working on the Sabbath - or in this case, at McDonalds.

Stung by $20,000 in fines for employing Jewish workers on the Sabbath, McDonald's Israeli franchise lashed out with advertisements in Israeli newspapers this week that said: "Religious coercion in Israel must be stopped ... Stop capitulating to [the ultra-Orthodox] Shas [party] or else Israel will become Iran."

The half-page ads are part of a larger question Israel is wrestling with: Should religious Jews force public Sabbath observance on secular Israelis?

The ads have particular resonance now because they coincide with Prime Minister Ehud Barak's efforts to strike a deal with the powerful Shas party to enable its continued participation in his coalition.

Mr. Barak says that a degree of flexibility towards Shas is necessary in order to assure the party's support for future peace moves with the Palestinians.

The ads, which carried the golden arches, reflect only the "personal opinion" of the owner of the Israeli franchise, Omri Padan, rather than company policy, says Walter Riker, a spokesman at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois.

This controversy began when the Shas-controlled Labor Ministry began enforcing a previously dormant 1953 law banning employment of Jewish 15-to-18 year olds on the Sabbath. The ads said the enforcement threatens the livelihood of 1,500 Jewish teens employed by McDonald's in Israel.

Yossi Paritzky, a legislator for the secularist Shinui Party, supports Mr. Padan's stance. Mr. Paritzky says the law was never intended for a consensual situation, but rather for when a teen complains of being forced to work. Shas, he says, is abusing its powers in order to impose its religious views on others.

For secularists, the law's application by Shas is just one example of how the influence of religious parties in Israeli public life translates into practices that might be viewed as infringements on individual prerogatives in other societies.

These include that marriage and divorce can be carried out only by rabbis, that roads near ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are closed on the Sabbath, and the state's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, namely the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements to which the majority of American Jewry is affiliated.

During its crackdown, the Labor Ministry sent non-Jewish inspectors into McDonald's restaurants on the Sabbath to find out if there were any Jews working.

"In the United States, if an inspector enters a restaurant and seeks to determine the religion of the workers, he is the one who will be immediately arrested, not the workers," Mr. Padan told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. Critics say Padan is more interested in McDonald's bottom line than in upholding civil liberties. Replacing teens means hiring adults at higher wages.

All the Labor Ministry did was to enforce the law, says Yitzhak Sudri, spokesman for Shas. "Padan is turning his hamburgers into a political beef," he says.

Besides the labor issue, the party is also unhappy with McDonald's cheeseburgers, which violate religious dietary laws that proscribe mixing dairy products and meat. "McDonald's to me is a symbol of the war against the things that are most sacred for the Jewish people," Mr. Sudri says.

Therein lies the link between the cheeseburger and Israel's 52-year-old identity crisis. The vast majority of Israelis agree that Israel should be a Jewish state. But they differ over whether its Jewishness emanates primarily from being inhabited by a majority of Jews and drawing upon Jewish culture or whether it derives from deference to Jewish law and tradition.

With a surge in electoral power of ultra-Orthodox parties in recent years, especially Shas, the secularists are increasingly on the defensive. Shas, which grew from 6 Knesset seats in 1992 to 17 last year, has proven very adept at flexing it's muscle.

"They might be doing it to achieve an external aim, to mount more pressure on the government," says Gad Barzilai, a Tel Aviv University political scientist. For Shas, Barzilai said, the guiding motive is invariably to elicit funding from the government for its scandal-ridden school network.

Meanwhile, Barak's office said: "The prime minister has not given in to Shas."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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