Secularists Fight Sabbath Laws in Israel

Israel is having a similar fight to the one over so-called “blue laws” in the United States in decades past, with secular Jews protesting against laws that forbid businesses from being open on the Jewish sabbath, which is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

The crowd that gathered at the recent grand opening of Cinema City hadn’t come for the movies. They were there in droves to protest a government regulation that keeps the 19-screen cineplex closed each week from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

“Jerusalem, wake up!” the protesters chanted as security guards blocked them from entering the lobby. “Nonreligious people are equal too!”

The demonstration was the latest skirmish in Jerusalem’s long-running “Sabbath wars,” which for decades have pitted the city’s secular Jewish population against its ultra-Orthodox community over whether shops, theaters and other public spaces can remain open on the Jewish day of rest.

“I don’t tell people when to go to the synagogue, and they shouldn’t tell me when to go to the cinema,” said Laura Wharton, a city councilwoman whose left-leaning Meretz party led the protest outside the cineplex, which was built on city land and is barred from opening on the Sabbath by a provision written by an ultra-Orthodox city lawmaker. “You have a small, vocal minority telling the rest of the city what they should do.”

Tired of having to drive an hour to Tel Aviv to dance at a nightclub on a Friday night or sit at a cafe on a Saturday morning, secular activists are fighting for more nonreligious Sabbath activities in Jerusalem. They have rallied behind the opening of a small but growing number of cafes and bars and have held booming block parties in the streets, at times provoking counter-protests.

The proportion of secularists among Jews in Israel is actually quite large, but Orthodox groups appear to have a disproportionate amount of influence over public policy. But you don’t have to be non-religious to believe in this kind of secularism.

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  • doublereed

    The Israelis I’ve spoken with very much think in terms of ‘Religious vs. Secular.” It’s not like America where politics are rarely discussed in such terms. They refer to themselves as “Secular Jews.” It doesn’t mean they’re not religious, of course. Benjamin Netanyahu, for instance, is secular, which is why he can get significant support from the left-wing of Israel.

    And this confirms the other thing I’ve heard, which is that there is a thriving Shabbat nightlife. Wooooo!

  • barry21

    I’ve been living on the Mediterranean coast of Israel for 2 years now. We don’t have nearly the level of religious intrusion that Jerusalem gets. In fact, the Cinema City nearest me is open on Shabbat.

    That said, Israel is a Jewish country with no Constitution (let alone a Constitutional analog to the 1st Amendment), so the best people can do is to protest; the Israeli Supreme Court (a laudably liberal institution) won’t just step in and change the law.

  • laurentweppe

    the Israeli Supreme Court (a laudably liberal institution) won’t just step in and change the law.

    And when the Israeli Supreme Court step in, its ruling are often ignored by the Power That Be.

  • steve84

    Why is protesting allowed on the Sabbath?