Mickey Zohar, a member of the Knesset from the Likud party who has been in the Knesset for almost two years, introduced his new “Shabbos Law” last Wednesday. The screams of protest were not long in coming. “This isn’t Iran!” they cried, and with the full backing of the media, the left made it seem as if a major tragedy was occurring in the State of Israel. Even other members of the Likud opposed to the law, and the prime minister has deferred a vote until a later date – a much later date. What does the law say, and what led to the greatest hullabaloo that has been seen in the Knesset plenum in a very long time?
By Tzvi Yaakovson
It has been a long time since the Knesset plenum was the scene of an uproar like the one that it witnessed last Wednesday, during the debate over the bill that has been nicknamed “the Shabbos law.” Despite what you might expect, the legislator who advanced the bill was not a member of UTJ or Shas. Rather, he is a young Knesset member from the Likud party, who has been in the Knesset since March 2014, even before the previous elections. And while he doesn’t have a particularly long career in the Knesset behind him, he does seem to be armed with a hefty dose of audacity. After all, his bill has been opposed not only by the political left – Yesh Atid, Meretz, and the Zionist Camp – which could only be expected, but also by his fellow Likud members, to our great chagrin. Surprisingly, even Avigdor Lieberman has joined the chorus of condemnation. While Lieberman is known for his unpredictability, this time we were particularly taken aback. First, Lieberman has a daughter who became religious, and until this incident, we felt that his views were close to those of the chareidi public. Second, the vehemence with which he attacked the bill seemed far too exaggerated. “The Likud may turn into Agudas Yisroel,” he declared fiercely, “but we will not allow Tel Aviv to turn into Bnei Brak!”
Based on the brouhaha surrounding it, one might have thought that the law would create an unprecedented upheaval. The truth, though, is that a chiloni should support it no less than a chareidi would, if not more so. The bill actually does not introduce many changes to the status quo. Even now, it is technically illegal for a store to be open on Shabbos. In many cities, the authorities simply do not enforce that law. The new law says the same thing: It prohibits opening stores on Shabbos, with the exception of specific cases. The following is the explanatory text accompanying the proposal, which was officially dubbed the Law of the Weekly Day of Rest:
“It is proposed to establish that no person shall operate a business on the day of rest unless he has received a permit from the Minister of the Economy. The minister is permitted to issue a permit if he finds that the failure to give the permit will harm the security of the state, the security of an individual or his property, the economy, the process of labor, or the provision of vital necessities for the public or part of it, and after consultation with the Minister of Defense and the head of the local council in whose jurisdiction the business is located. In addition, it is prohibited to make a contract contingent on a business being open on Shabbos or to stipulate in a contract that a business will receive aid for opening on Shabbos. A person who receives a permit to employ a worker during the weekly hours of rest will be permitted to operate his business on the day of rest, within the parameters specified by the permit. Violation of the proposed law will be punishable by monetary sanctions, along with criminal charges that carry the sentence of one year’s imprisonment or a fine. Likewise, violation of the law that prohibits operating a business will be deemed a civil offense toward other business owners, and the assessment of damage caused will be stipulated by law. The local council’s authority to issue additional instructions regarding the opening and closing times of businesses will not override the prohibitions set forth by this law.”
There is little about the new law that differs from the current situation in Israel. Today, as well, it is illegal for a business to operate on Shabbos without a permit from the Ministry of the Economy. The current law has its violators, and it is possible that there will be business owners who will ignore Mickey Zohar’s bill as well. The current law (the Hours of Work and Rest Law) is occasionally eroded, even by the courts, and Mickey Zohar’s law will likely suffer the same fate.
The reason Zohar’s law has engendered such fierce criticism is probably that it is a reminder of the existence of Shabbos and the fact that we live in a Jewish state – things that many people would rather forget altogether. From the moment the subject was brought up, various chiloni bodies have been decrying it as if it were an unmitigated calamity for the State of Israel. Even Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu has taken the critics’ side, announcing at the last minute that he would allow Mickey Zohar to present the bill in the Knesset, but a vote on the law will be delayed until another time. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Knesset Committee, David Bitan of the Likud, has announced that as long as he remains in charge of the committee, the law will be “stuck.” That is, he will use his power to prevent the legislative process from moving forward.
Because the Mayor of Tel Aviv Called
Let us move on to the debate in the Knesset plenum last Wednesday. The deputy speaker chairing the sitting, MK Tali Ploskov of the Kulanu party, invited MK Machlouf “Mickey” Zohar to take the floor and present his bill. It was clear that she sensed that the proposal would cause a stir, but even she did not expect the extent of the uproar.
Mickey Zohar began: “I would like to ask the members of the opposition to listen closely, since I have already been attacked by MK Yoel Hasson. My friends, let us admit the truth: The Zionist Camp has held a debate over my law. It held that debate because one person, probably the only socialist remaining in the Zionist Camp, MK Yossi Yonah, asked for a thorough discussion of the law. And why? Because this is a Jewish and socialist law. It is not a law that speaks about religious coercion. It is easy to attack this law by claiming that it is religious coercion, but that is not true. But if not for those arguments, how could anyone justify—”
Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin of the Zionist Camp interjected, “It seems that you have become a great socialist yourself!”
Zohar turned to the chairwoman of the session and said, “I would like to ask that she not interrupt me. I want to speak without interruptions, and she is not permitting me to do that.”
“MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, please do not interrupt,” Tali Ploskov said. Nahmias-Verbin continued heckling Zohar, and Ploskov warned the plenum, “Gentlemen, I will begin removing members of the Knesset from the hall. Please calm down.”
Mickey Zohar continued, “It is very difficult, but I will explain why you had no choice but to vote against this bill. Why did Shelly Yachimovich, the mother of all socialists in the State of Israel, have to vote against this bill? Why did Buji Herzog, who portrays himself as a social democrat, have to vote against this bill?”
Itzik Shmuli of the Zionist Camp now spoke up. “Why are you looking to us? You should first convince your own friends in the Likud. Convince them!”
Zohar continued, “Why did Itzik Shmuli, a socialist with every fiber in his being, have to vote against this bill?”
“Convince David Bitan!” Shmuli added.
Aliza Lavie, a Shabbos-observant member of the Yesh Atid party, said, “You do business on Shabbos!”
Nahmias-Verbin interrupted again: “You can’t speak about the people of Tel Aviv!”
“MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, I am calling you to order for the first time,” Ploskov admonished her.
Mickey Zohar went on, “Why did Merav Michaeli, a social democrat, have to vote against this bill? I am going to read off your names one by one. Why did Amir Peretz, an ardent socialist, vote against the bill? I will tell you why….”
“You do business on Shabbos!” Aliza Lavie repeated.
This time, Tali Ploskov called Lavie to order.
“I will tell you why,” Mickey Zohar continued, undaunted. “It’s because Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, called to wish you well. My friends, we all know that the Tel Aviv community supports the Zionist Camp, and we know that the people of Tel Aviv have a problem with my bill. So Ron Huldai called you….”
Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin shouted in protest again, and Ploskov called her to order for the second time. If a Knesset member is called to order three times, the chairman of the session generally has them expelled from the forum. The first two times are merely warnings.
Protecting the Weak
Mickey Zohar continued, “You don’t want to cause any damage to the ideals of socialism, but you are very much of afraid of Ron Huldai. You are worried, because he presides over an entire community that supported you in the most recent elections. That is the reason. You were afraid to lose the Tel Aviv vote. Admit that it’s the truth! You sacrificed your socialist principles for the sake of the Tel Aviv vote.”
“What is the point of this?” Chaim Yellin of Yesh Atid demanded.
“Come to Lod for one day,” Itzik Shmuli piped up. “Just for one day!”
Shouts began echoing from every part of the plenum. Ploskov struggled to maintain control, calling Itzik Shmuli to order for the first time.
“I want to say one small thing,” Mickey Zohar went on. “After all is said and done, I have heard the criticism of the past few weeks, and I have listened carefully. I have also seen where it came from, and that is very clear: The criticism comes solely from power groups that influence the media.”
Once again, the shouts were deafening. “It’s hard for you to hear the truth!” Zohar declared. “The people of Tel Aviv are pressuring you.”
“The bill won’t pass,” Yoel Hasson interjected.
Now it was Hasson’s turn to be called to order. This was the second time, in fact. The enraged shouting continued, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. The chairwoman turned to Mickey Levi, who was shouting at an exaggerated volume, and announced, “MK Mickey Levi, I am calling you to order for the third time. You are asked to leave the plenum.” Levi protested angrily, but when he saw a group of ushers approaching him, he hurried to leave. Yoel Hasson then stood up, moved to the center of the plenum, and began to rant loudly. Ploskov called him to order for the third time as well and ordered him out of the plenum.
Mickey Zohar resumed his speech. “My intent is to help the citizens of the periphery. We won’t abandon them. You have abandoned them time after time for the sake of Tel Aviv, but we won’t do that.”
“Don’t talk about the people of Tel Aviv!” Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin protested again, leading Ploskov to call her to order for the third time and expel her from the plenum.
Chaim Yellin of Yesh Atid then asked, in a pointed reference to Netanyahu’s decision of that morning, “Why aren’t you voting? Why isn’t the law being brought to a vote?”
“We will protect the weaker citizens and business owners,” Mickey Zohar repeated.
Yoel Hasson – who hadn’t left the plenum when he was ejected – suddenly began screaming. Mickey Zohar asked him to calm down. “It isn’t healthy to get angry like that,” he said. Ploskov suddenly realized that Hasson was still present and asked Zohar to stop speaking until the Knesset members who had been ejected left the plenum.
Hasson cried, “This law won’t pass, and you know that it won’t pass!” With that, he left the room.
“Mickey Zohar, why aren’t you voting?” Chaim Yellin demanded again.
“MK Chaim Yellin, I am calling you to order for the first time,” Ploskov announced. “MK Michal Rozin, I ask you to sit down. MK Tamar Zandberg, I call you to order for the first time.”
“Can I speak?” Mickey Zohar said. “You asked a question; do you want the answer? Tamar, do you want to hear the answer? Then listen.”
Tamar Zandberg attempted to respond, but Ploskov preempted her by calling her to order for the second time.
“Can I continue?” Mickey Zohar asked. “They keep disturbing me.”
“I’m trying,” Ploskov replied. “You see that I am emptying the entire plenum. Anyone who interrupts you will be removed.”
Mickey Zohar proceeded to antagonize the left yet again, commenting wryly, “How nice that so many people have been sent outside today.”
“You’re a coward!” shouted Tamar Zandberg of Meretz. “Hold the vote!”
“Let there be a vote! A vote!” Michal Rozin, also of Meretz, echoed her colleague’s sentiment.
“MK Michal Rozin, I am calling you to order for the second time,” Ploskov said.
Undeterred, Rozin continued to protest and was ordered to leave the plenum. She was followed shortly thereafter by Tamar Zandberg.
Let us skip the rest of the screams of indignation and focus on the substance of the debate. Mickey Zohar admitted that his law was based on a religious idea, and he saw nothing wrong with the Knesset reinforcing the Jewish identity of the country. He also emphasized repeatedly that the main thrust of the bill was a socialist one. Today, he explained, every grocery store or kiosk owner is forced to open his establishment on Shabbos in order to contend with the competition. “People must be allowed to rest on Shabbos,” Zohar insisted, adding, “If we don’t protect Judaism, how can we justify our existence?”
This remark enraged two other members of the Knesset, both from the Kulanu party, which is part of the coalition but opposes the law: Merav Ben-Ari and Roy Folkman. The two were called to order three times in quick succession, one after the other, and then asked to leave the plenum.
“Ben-Gurion, a total chiloni, stood with a copy of the Tanach and declared it to be the basis of our rights to the Land of Israel,” Mickey Zohar continued. “Why do the people in Tel Aviv ignore this, Buji? Do you want the concept of Judaism to be forgotten?”
“Let’s adopt everything Ben-Gurion said,” Yitzchok Herzog responded.
“What is wrong about having a state that is both Jewish and democratic?” Mickey Zohar demanded. “What could be bad about that? That’s what they want to undermine, and I will not be a partner in that.”
“Iran is here,” announced Itzik Shmuli.
Chaim Yellin lost his calm at that moment, and Tali Ploskov called him to order for the third time and ordered him to leave the plenum.
“You only called me to order once,” Yellin protested.
“This was the third time,” Ploskov replied. “You haven’t even been hearing me. I have it all written down.”
They Don’t Want to Rest on Shabbos in Lod?
Perhaps we should explain the background of Itzik Shmuli’s repeated cries for Zohar to “Go to Lod.” He seemed to be implying that the people of Lod would be angry at Zohar for advancing the bill. Mickey Zohar turned his attention to Shmuli, who was heckling him ceaselessly. Shmuli is a young member of the Knesset from the Zionist Camp who lives in Lod. Zohar responded to his challenge by demanding, “Itzik, do you feel that the workers from the lower class who live in Ramle and Lod, who have to come to the supermarkets on Shabbos to work at the cash registers, don’t deserve a day of rest? Aren’t you a socialist? Is this the approach of a man who champions social rights?
“You are concerned for them?” Shmuli replied. “You’re not concerned for them. You’re looking to harm them!”
With that, Shmuli was called to order for the third time and asked to leave the plenum.
“I’m sorry you had yourself ejected from the plenum as well,” Mickey Zohar said.
Tali Ploskov announced, “Gentlemen, every member of the Knesset is entitled to ten minutes to speak and present his proposal. If you don’t agree with it, don’t vote for it, but you cannot be permitted to interrupt and to have loud arguments here in the Knesset plenum. That is all, please.”
“My friends,” Zohar said, resuming his speech once again, “this state will always be a Jewish and democratic state, and its Jewish identity obligates us to have one day of rest each week. That is the Shabbos day, whether you like it or not. The socialist rights that exist in the State of Israel dictate that any Jew who wishes to rest for one day a week, on Shabbos, must be permitted to do so, even if you don’t like it.”
Nachman Shai of the Zionist Camp called out, “When was the last time you read Berl Katznelson?”
“You can accuse me of religious coercion, of being backward and primitive, or of being messianic,” Mickey Zohar said. “I will continue to adhere to my views with integrity and good faith until we are triumphant, with Hashem’s help. My victory would be a victory for the Jewish people. It will give our people quiet and calm; it will lead us to tranquility and to tremendous success. And that is because we are here for only one reason. Make no mistake about it: We are here only because of Hashem. Ben-Gurion also said this, and I am saying it as well. This is a Jewish, socialist law.”
“Sir, please conclude your address,” Tali Ploskov said.
“Internalize this,” Mickey Zohar commanded his audience. “Stop attacking it with things that are not true. Incidentally, Elazar Stern, you yourself are against commerce on Shabbos, so why are you opposed to this law?”
Tali Ploskov reiterated her request for Zohar to end his speech.
“You only want public transportation on Shabbos, but you are personally opposed to commerce. Many people here want to curry favor with the people of Tel Aviv, including Yesh Atid and the Zionist Camp. I am not impressed with that. It is cheap populism. I am telling you the truth, and I will follow it to the end.”
Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid interjected, “Let’s see you bring the bill to a vote!”
“The vote has been delayed until sometime in the near future,” Mickey Zohar replied. “And I emphasize, my friends, that it will be very soon. Thank you very much.”
“Thank you, MK Mickey Zohar,” Tali Ploskov said. “As he mentioned, responses and voting will take place at a later date. Therefore, we will not be holding the debate now.”