Friday, March 08, 2002

Democracy at work

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord thy G-d, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day ; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it”

Shabbat is one of the most explicit commandments of the Torah, and perhaps the most widely observed. There are many who believe that were we all to keep two Shabbatot in a row, our hour of redemption would finally come. Be they Ashkenazi or Sephardi, black or white, charedi or secular, Israelis maintain some level of adherence to Shabbat. Friday night in particular is a time when the family are together, where work is left behind, and where friends catch up with one another. Even in secular areas, there is a gentler spirit during Shabbat which I’m aware of in a way that I don’t feel in London. The Chagim are national events and thus there aren’t the worries of rushing from work to be home in time that happens in the Diaspora. One can walk through certain districts on Shabbat or Chagim without seeing a single car, an achievement even Ken Livingstone would be proud of!

But what about Israelis with a different perspective? For many, Friday night is their only evening off, and their Shabbat experience is going to the movies, doing some shopping, going to see friends on the other side of town, or relaxing at the Beach. They are increasingly turning to the law to help, and they have some unlikely supporters.

First of all, there is Meimad – the youngest Orthodox party in the country. They have helped form a new bill which is beginning it’s journey through the Knesset and which is backed by both Likud and Labour MKs. They want to achieve a national consensus that would see businesses close on Shabbat but places of entertainment such as Cinemas and Theatres etc. allowed to be open, and that would allow private bus companies to operate transport. Founded in 1988, Meimad believes in the principle of land for peace, and they are against religious coercion. In 1991, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) (which includes observant Jews amongst their members) aroused a lot of controversy when it successfully appealed to the Supreme Court to permit movie theatres in Netanya to operate on Friday night. ACRI was established in 1972 to bolster Israel's commitment to civil liberties and human rights. Despite it’s noble objectives, ACRI struggles to convince many in the religious community who are sceptical of its motives. “How dare they allow Cinemas to operate on Shabbat”, they wailed in protest.

I remember arguing with a colleague at Hasmonean School who proposed that Israel should become a full Theocracy. He argued that observant Israelis would be able to preserve Judaism with its spirit intact and without secular discrimination. What my friend at Hasmonean failed to appreciate, was that in protecting civil rights in Israel they are also protecting religious people like himself. ACRI is a strictly nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. It protects the rights of all Israelis, regardless of religion, nationality or political beliefs, and, will also defend the right to be halachic if that is being threatened.

Many of us are happy to see that Jews are prevented from discriminating against other Jews. But what of Israeli citizens who are Arabs? My Father often used to quote from the book of Shemot, “…a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt…” And when it comes to the Stranger, it’s the Civil Rights groups who are tackling such questions, not the Rabbis, nor most of the religious parties for that matter. The following case presents a precedent that protects both observant Jews as well as Muslim:

On December 14, 1998, a group of unemployed women from the Muslim village of Ein Mahel were sent to find jobs at a pork butchery in Yafia, near Nazareth. The women refused to work there. The plant's manager said that he knows how problematic such work is for Muslims; when he sent his original request to the government unemployment bureau, he emphasized his preference for people who do not mind working with pork – for example, non-orthodox Russian immigrants. The bureau decided, however, to send him jobless women from a purely Muslim village.

In a campaign that received widespread publicity, legal action was taken against the bureau manager who it was argued made a deliberate attempt to gain the women's refusal, so that he could remove them from the job-seekers list and eliminate their benefits. At first the bureau threatened to sue for libel, but ultimately it apologized for the "mistake". In 1998, ACRI successfully appealed to the Labour Court to reinstate a teacher at a religious kindergarden who was fired after 26 years of employment because of her husband’s secularism and her children’s attendance at a non-religious school. In another case, ACRI successfully represented job applicants who were turned down for a job at Bezeq’s 144 telephone service (Israeli equivalent of Directory enquiries) because they refused to work on Shabbat – but the other side of the coin is that the Orthodox can’t discriminate against people simply because they can’t countenance their lifestyle.

In 1995, ACRI petitioned the High Court of Justice, after the Katzir Cooperative Society turned down their application for a building plot on the ground that they were Arabs. Katzir was built on state land leased by the Israel Lands Authority to the Jewish Agency, whose mandate is restricted to advancing the needs of Israel's Jewish sector. It took the High Court of Justice five years to rule on the petition. When it did, it declared that the government had broken the law when it allocated state-owned land to the Jewish Agency to build a community that excluded Israeli Arabs. It ordered the government to reconsider the family’s application. Nothing has been done about the ruling since then, and the family continue to live in Baka el-Garbiya. There are many who question the Arab family’s motives. But a glance at the squalid state of the town where they live, their lack of facilities, and the poor level of education, makes their motivation understandable. Like we have done for centuries, Israeli Arabs also want the chance for a better life, and a better education for their children.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to hear the spokesperson of ACRI, Risa Zoll, speak about the organisation’s role in Israel today. When she mentioned ACRI’s role in banning the use of torture by the security services, she was berated by a member of the audience, who accused ACRI of dragging Israel’s name in the mud. Risa responded by saying how proud she was of her country. The outside world can can see that Israel has the courage of it’s convictions and doesn’t require the intervention of civil groups outside her borders. In recent weeks, the Journalist Melanie Phillips was laughed at on BBC’s Question Time for stating that the only Israel is the only Democratic state in the Middle East. It’s a reality that many outsiders refuse to believe in, and sadly, a fact that many of my Jewish counterparts refuse to accept. It may not be perfect, but as long as Israel remains a Democracy in name, there will be those who believe in fighting for the rights of all her citizens to remain democratic in spirit as well.